Whenever I've been away from reading Nouwen for a while then pick one of his books up again it's like being drastically, yet gently, reoriented.
I've never experienced anything like it before with any other author. Nouwen is truly my spiritual mentor, though our conversations take place through books instead of over coffee.
I just finished the book Compassion, which is actually authored by Nouwen and two others. I wasn't sure what I'd get out of it, but it became clear there was a lot I needed to hear from this short book. One theme that resonated with me was the difference between competition and compassion. I've come a long way, but I still struggle with competition. It's how I've lived and strived for value for 30+ years, so I guess it figures it won't go away overnight. Competition seeks to set apart in order to feel affirmed. Compassion eliminates differences, bringing all to the basic level of humanity, so that we can enter into solidarity with others.
A compassionate person creates space for sharing joy, sorrow, pain. Compassion gives, instead of taking. "When we have discovered that our sense of self does not depend on our differences and that our self-esteem is based on a love much deeper than the praise that can be acquired by unusual performances, we can see our unique talents as gifts for others."
There were also a few words on prayer I needed to hear again. I've lived most of my life with a totally false idea of what prayer is. I viewed it as a 5 minute activity during which I needed to throw some praise God's way then list all my desires and hope I could talk him into doing things my way. Here's what Nouwen says about prayer:
"Prayer, as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus, from speaking freely to us and in us."
"Prayer requires that we stand in God's presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and others that without God we can do nothing. This is difficult in a climate where the predominant counsel is Do your best and God will do the rest. When life is divided into our best and God's rest we have turned prayer into a last resort to be used only when all our own resources are depleted."
"Prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us...This indicates that that prayer as a discipline of patience is the human effort to allow the Holy Spirit to do re-creating work in us...But above all, it involves the decision to set aside time every day to be alone with God and listen to the Spirit."
Nouwen's short little books are always packed with deep truths. They challenge and encourage me at the same time. I'm always reminded of how passionately God loves me- just the way I am. But I don't feel content with staying just as I am. I want to grow and blossom into a more loving person. The temptation at that point is to follow steps, or take action to produce that growth within me. As if I could create it for myself, or turn myself into something new. When in reality, it requires surrendering to God's work within me. Nouwen even addresses this in Compassion:
"Compassion is a divine gift, not a result of systematic study or effort. Discipline in the Christian life does indeed require effort, but it is an effort to reveal rather than to conquer. God always calls. To hear God's call and allow that call to guide our actions requires discipline in order to prevent ourselves from becoming or remaining spiritually deaf. There are so many voices calling for our attention, and so many activities distracting us that a serious effort is necessary if we are to become and remain sensitive to the divine presence in our lives."
Nouwen continues to turn the religious training of my youth on its head. I wish I had been exposed to this kind of intimacy with God earlier. I wish I had known God wasn't a list of rules and procedures, but a powerful force of Love at the center of my being calling me to soak up all his goodness and then pour out Love to all around me.