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    a community dinner

    Attentiveness, Prayer, and Solitude in Community

    What are the spiritual practices that keep a community and its members alive?

    By Henri J. M. Nouwen

    January 24, 2022
    • Nick Heward

      Is there a way to download this so I can print it and give it to others?

    The Disciplines in Community

    How do we put into place the disciplines that are required to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, whether for individuals or communities? The core word is attentiveness. Be attentive, be alert, be awake. Be ready. Listen.

    The discipline is to be attentive to where conversion is needed. It’s not just an outer call; it comes from within. How can we stay in touch with the longing, with the desire for conversion? A lot of people I know have no desire to be converted whatsoever. The fact that you want to be converted is in itself a sign that there is something you long for that you know you are missing. And if you really do live the tension, you are living in a state of longing. If you don’t have any tension, if you don’t have any longing, you become like many people who finally end up flat and bored. Routine is all there is.

    Nothing excites me. Nothing really gives me life. And a lot of people live like that. So be attentive. Attentiveness is the inner goal of conversion. It has to do with attentiveness to the voice of God in your life of prayer.

    Prayer and the Longing to be Loved

    Prayer is the place where it becomes possible to get in touch with your belovedness. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of going to a wonderful party and then you come home and feel utterly disappointed. That wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. It didn’t fulfill me.

    We often have longings that we project onto a party or a meeting or a person. You come home and you say, there is something more. This person, this movie, this opera, this handicapped person that I was going out with, this meeting at L’Arche – it’s all nice, but somehow I want more. I have a heart that desires more. My heart longs for a love that no human being, no party, no core member can give me. And to be in touch with that longing is not easy, because it’s painful. Something important is missing that you want. Prayer is precisely to go to the place where you can say, God, I’m not satisfied. I need more love and only you can give that to me.

    I need to hear that you are a God who loves me unconditionally, who has molded me in the depths of the world and knitted me together in my mother’s womb. You are really my God and the fulfillment of my desire.

    Now be careful here. I’m not talking about some wonderful, warm, fuzzy feeling you always feel. Prayer is this statement to yourself and to God that only God can fulfill your needs. Even when that doesn’t give you all the feelings you might desire. That’s very, very important. You finally have to love yourself and overcome feelings of self-rejection. And you can only love yourself when you know you are loved. Loving yourself means I experience that I’m well held and well embraced, and then I’m okay. I can love myself because I am loved well, and that’s a spiritual thing. It’s not just an emotional thing. It’s not just a mental thing. It’s spiritual. Spiritual means that it has an eternal quality that is beyond even the moment of your birth and death.

    Prayer and Solitude in Community

    First of all, I have a question. Where is the time in your life that you are with God and with God alone? Where is your solitude?

    It is really important that there is a moment in your life that you are alone with God. Some days it can be five minutes. It can be ten minutes. But is it anywhere? Is there any place in your busy day that you stop, and you say, “Here I am, this needy, lonely, anguished, confused person in front of you. And I want to hear again that you love me. Otherwise, I may lose it.” And if I lose it, then I will go all over the place. “You are my Shepherd. And there’s nothing I shall want (though I want all those things!), but you are my Shepherd. So I want to claim that truth. And the truth is that in the deepest sense, all that I need is given to me.” That is a real discipline, because everything around you makes you busy, even busy with good things.

    Second, I want to ask the question, and it is for your community. Where are you as a community constantly praying to God in such a way that your vision is being nurtured on a daily basis or on a weekly basis? I think you have your regular Monday night meetings, but I just want to raise that question. I have a very strong feeling that if you want to be a vital community you have to have a lot of corporate prayer. I don’t mean this or that particular ritual. When do you come together and really hear again that God not only loves you as individuals, but loves you as a community? That you are called together. You don’t just happen to be together because you were looking for a job.

    That’s fine, but that’s not the final thing. It’s not enough to say, “Well, how are you? Why are you here?” “Well, I didn’t know what to do, and I heard about L’Arche.” In some cases that may be true, but that’s just accidental. That was the occasion for God to call you together. Somewhere as a community, you have to claim your unique, corporate spiritual identity. You have to keep renewing that.

    I have a very strong feeling that if you want to be a vital community you have to have a lot of corporate prayer.

    For me that is very, very important. At Daybreak, for instance, we began having a daily Eucharist. Now you may not be able to have that. For us that has become an enormous vital experience. About forty or fifty people come together each day for just a half hour. And in that half hour somebody speaks, not me, different members of the community, and gives just a little reflection on the gospel.

    Together we have an opportunity to say, “I want you to know that I want to live this day faithful to the vision.… Now I might not live it perfectly, and I won’t, but I want to announce that to you.” And so every day there are a few moments when we as a community come together. It doesn’t mean everybody. There are 120 members. Everyone shows up some time or another. But most often we are forty or fifty together.

    Basically somewhere it is in the fabric of our life together, that we come together to “re-vision” and to pray to God. Now you might need a whole different shape to that. I’m not all suggesting any particular shape, but this is something you should think about. How can we keep renewing our corporate sense of being God’s beloved body? It is very important. Each of you might have something to say, to contribute, to discern how to live this, no matter whether you have been in this community a long time or not.

    Sometimes there are hard things to say when you gather. “It’s hard for me to keep loving handicapped people. It’s very difficult for me, but I just want to confess that and bring it here.” Or you might say, “I just had a meeting yesterday, and something happened that suddenly gives me life.” And that’s not just good for you, but it’s good for others to hear about that. You have to announce to each other on a regular basis, on a weekly or daily basis, the little graces that God brings to you and to share them with each other. That way you can see together that there is something happening here. And we recognize that, and it is beautiful. So, the prayer life on the one hand is solitude, stopping, being alone. On the other hand, to keep coming together as a body to nurture your life together.

    people reading poetry around a dinner table

    Photograph by Danny Burrows. Used by permission.

    You each need to be able to say: “I need to be fed. I need to be nurtured, whether it’s by the word or whether it’s by the Eucharist, or by somebody who gives a little reflection. I can’t live without it.” L’Arche is an intentional community and you can only stay a community when you have intentional efforts to pray together. Otherwise it all becomes busyness and work.

    Prayer as part of life together is a discipline, an individual discipline and a communal discipline. You as a body are responsible to yourself and to your core members, but also to the future. You may be at L’Arche for two years, five years, six months, but you are part of something, you belong to something that wants to exist for the next generation. I might be dead in ten years, but Daybreak will be there. And I want to do something in Daybreak that allows it to continue. No matter how long you are there, you are part of a movement that wants to move on, part of the visioning, part of the nurturing, part of the spirituality, so that the community feels loved and that those who are there can be loved. So that’s the first discipline: attentiveness to God through prayer and solitude in community.

    Attentiveness to the Moment

    The second is attentiveness to the moment. In the spiritual life there is a very simple statement: God is always here and now. The difficulty is that we are often with our mind in the past, feeling guilty or ashamed about the past. Or we are in the future, worrying about it. We are seldom together, here and now. So the question is, right now, are you here?

    To the degree you are here, something can happen. But if you’re only thinking, “Now it’s 3:00 p.m. and after this I can go there and then tomorrow I can do that,” it’s fine. But if you are filled with that now, you are not here. You are there. To the degree that you are here, God can do his work. If you would be fully here, this roof would blow up from so much energy in this house. If you and I would be totally here, and nowhere else, this whole building would blow up from the energy. Really, that is what the Holy Spirit is about. But usually you and I are scattered all over the place. To the degree that you are here, God is doing a new thing, he renews your heart, he is reshaping you. So the question is not just “What are we going to do tomorrow?” Or “How I can use this?” The question is: Are we where we are fully, as much as we can be? It’s never perfect, it is always limited. And that is one thing that L’Arche is very strong on. The time that is the most important time for community is the meal.

    Mealtime in Community

    The point is that you say these are moments where we live community with one another around the table. Everybody’s there. Perhaps we have a candle or flowers, or a song and a prayer, and we take our time. Whatever you do, we are not eating in order to just fill our bellies and go back to work. We are eating together in community, to be together around the same food and to nurture ourselves. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. So if you don’t have these things, I think a good thing for a community to do is to constantly revisit the question: Are we still eating well together? Or have our meals become something similar to fast-food places?

    I know a family or a community from the way they behave at the table. It can be: This is peaceful. This is wonderful. I’m welcome here. But if everybody is watching television, others are running off for phone calls, then nobody’s really ever there. So to say, we will do everything possible to make sure that everyone is there, that we are not doing other things like telephoning, listening to the radio, or watching television on the side. This is a sacred hour. And in our culture there are very few families who can do that. So it’s not obvious in our culture. And I just picked up a McDonald’s hamburger yesterday on the way here.

    There’s the advertising slogan, “You can have it your way.” That describes our culture. That’s the symbol of our culture. It’s not inviting people to create community. So to be attentive to the moment, celebrate the moments at meals together. Also, if you are talking with somebody, be with that person. That’s not so easy to be aware that these are sacred moments. The question is never how long. Even when it’s five minutes, even when it’s half an hour. The question is never how long. The question always is “How full?” If you go to a person in the hospital who is dying, and if you say, “I’m, sorry, I can only stay ten minutes,” that’s awful. But if you have only ten minutes and you are totally there, that’s fine.

    Just be there, attentive, for ten minutes. And then if you leave, the person can say, “He visited me. He was really there with me and now he’s gone. And he sends his spirit to me. He sent his spirit to me so now he is with me.” It’s not a question of how long or how many hours. The question is how fully you are there.

    In that moment, you communicate that they are the most important person in the world to you. And you are saying: I want you to know that and I want to be here with you. And here, now, God is with you, talking to you. And then when the time is over, I can go. If you are fully present to people in the moment, then you can let go of them too.

    That person is fully there. You can commend that person to God, and you can move on and do something else. You may have to go to the supermarket and give your attention to that. You have to pay attention to that. Then you have to be in the chapel and pay attention to that. And then in the house. But you are trying to be where you are and do what you do. The great spirituality of L’Arche is that all that you do is sacred. God can be there when you do the laundry or do the dishes. The difference between a housemate who just does busy work and handmaid of the Lord is not what you are doing, but the fullness in which you are present to what you are doing.

    I go shopping, you go shopping. I do the laundry, you do the laundry. Do we live it as a way to be present to God or as just a chore? That’s the difference. “Le quotidien,” as the French say. Right there in everyday, ordinary life, in the hidden life of L’Arche, God can be very, very present there. That’s the discipline, a real discipline.

    Go to the Places of Poverty

    The third thing: Always go to the places of poverty. That’s a discipline. Go where the poor are. The word “poor” does not always mean economically poor. It doesn’t necessarily mean people who sit on the street. But somewhere, go to the places where people are poor, and where you are poor, because that’s where you will be blessed. And that’s where others are blessed. “Blessed are the poor.” So if you want a blessing, go there. Jesus did not say blessed are those who care for the poor. He said, “Blessed are the poor.” So, you might be the poor. And your wife or husband might be the poor for that moment. What I’m saying is don’t be afraid to go to places where people are hurting. Spiritually, every time you go close to places of woundedness or poverty, you will find light. You’ll find hope. You will find joy. You will find peace. You find all the things you ever want. Don’t veer away from the places of hurt, but go right there.

    I remember talking with people who were quite wealthy. And like everyone else, I’d say, tell me about your job. But people get very bored with this very quickly. But if you say, tell me about your heart. Tell me about what you are living. And this person, who in a way is wealthy and successful in their business, has the opportunity to say, “Well, this is what’s been hard for me lately. My colleagues and I are not getting along with each other. Or I sometimes wonder if people really love me. Or I feel disconnected from God or the church.” Whatever people say, there are places of poverty and you go there, and you say, “Let’s talk about that.” You discover that is where friendship is made. Precisely there. You weren’t afraid. You listen and you say: “I’m glad to be with you. Thank you for sharing that. I feel closer to you because you shared some of the struggle. And that’s a privilege for me.” And you hear: “Thank you for being with me.”

    You come home and say, “Wow, that was a beautiful evening.” That person wasn’t afraid to tell me something of his or her life. No hiding. Instead of making you sad and depressed, there’s a joy that I have had the privilege to enter into the suffering heart of this person, the suffering heart of the world, the suffering heart of God.

    But when you forget that, and you begin running after security and wealth, you lose the joy and the peace you are really looking for. But that is a discipline to practice.

    It is a discipline because poverty is not attractive all the time. When people are dying, you want to stay away from them. When people are sick, it’s hard to knock on the door. Your core members in the community might be going through a lot of pain, and it interrupts your plans. Somehow to really believe that if you keep your focus on the heart, the hidden blessing will be there. It’s not wallowing in sorrow. You begin to say: I trust that there’s a blessing there for me. A blessing to receive from the poor. And there is a blessing for others to be found in my poverty. That is a discipline that requires vulnerability.

    So, the three disciplines: Attentiveness to God where he can say “I love you,” both as individuals and as a community. Attentiveness to the moment, where you can discover God is right there with you in your meals, and in your conversations and community life. And attentiveness to the poor, where God always brings his blessing. That’s where the child is born within you. Your heart becomes a place that is prepared to receive that little child. And if you are attentive, you may not even notice it, that God is right there where you are, saying, “I’m here for you. And I made myself very small. So you don’t have to be afraid, worried, or anxious.”

    From Community by Henri J. M. Nouwen, edited by Stephen Lazarus. Copyright © 2021 by Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Published with permission by Orbis Books. All rights reserved.

    Contributed By HenriNouwen Henri J. M. Nouwen

    Henri J. M. Nouwen was an internationally loved and renowned priest, professor, and author. He wrote more than forty books offering spiritual guidance and direction.

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