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““The silence of solitude is nothing but dead silence
when it does not make us alert for a new voice sounding from beyond all human chatter.
Hospitality leads only to a congested home when nobody is traveling anywhere.” (Nouwen)
“…our solitude bears the signs of lonely hours, our care for others reflects at times angry feelings and our prayer sometimes reveals the memory and the presence of many illusions. Transformed in love, however, these painful signs become signs of hope, as the wounds of Jesus did for the doubting Thomas.” (Nouwen, pg. 116) Just as Jesus opened to doors of new life to Thomas, he has invited me to take His hand and leap beyond my wounds and brokenness to journey with him up the Mount of Tabor and experience the beauty of God’s light and glory. This beauty awaits me each day, yet my distractions, concerns, worries and preoccupations leave little room for God to become the host of my mind and heart. During this Advent season, Jesus reveals to me that He waits for me just as He calls me to wait for Him. Through this exchange of intimate longing, I reflected on the three movements of spiritual life presented by Fr. Henri Nouwen: from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer.
From Loneliness to Solidarity: Where the Healing Begins
To avoid loneliness, I make efforts to maintain “busyness” and superficial connections with others. A moment of being still often gets interrupted by a panicked thought that I need to get something done or I need to speak with someone. I find quick “solutions” for my loneliness, but God calls me to take time to attend to my wounds – to listen to the questions before seeking for answers. When I take the initiative to work on a task I have suspicions that there is no one else who cares to help me. I jump to conclusions and become task-focused, adding more work and more expectations while becoming less compassionate and less attentive to those I encounter. God calls me to break free from the vicious cycle of asking for more and more when less and less is received. This “need” to cling to the things of this world and to have control feeds the very loneliness I try to avoid.
Living in community with my sisters and working with the sick, elderly population every day has given me opportunities to turn my desert of loneliness into a garden of solitude –my restless senses into a restful spirit. Rather than reacting to changes and events, I respond to God’s love and with God’s love. When a sister or patient says or does something that provokes a negative thought or emotion, I stop to look within myself. In my innermost being resides the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. The more sensitive I am to the Spirit, the more attentive I am of my surroundings.I cannot gossip, condemn nor react uncharitably. I cannot point the finger at anyone. With this solitude of heart I must allow the healing to begin from within. By God’s grace, my own faults and weaknesses come to light. My vocation is now to respond to the voice I have discovered – the voice of the One who loves me.
From Hostility to Hospitality: Creating Space for Communion
By discovering and responding to my inner pain, compassionate solidarity with others springs forth. “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers.” (Thomas Merton) I have built “walls” that prevent myself from knowing and feeling the struggles of others. As a social worker I work with families who have conflicts which remind me of the struggles within my own family. How do I offer my service to others without being whole myself? I respond to this question with more worries and preoccupations to fill the emptiness – to keep myself distracted. I avoid issues, not wanting to accept the powerlessness of the wounds I cannot heal and the things I cannot control.
Solitude of heart, a reflective search within, breaks down the walls and defense mechanisms to reveal that I am not alone in responding to human suffering. It is not I who have the power to heal. To be of meaningful service to others requires a poverty of mind and heart, a self-emptying to be filled with God’s grace. Once I admit my weakness, I am strengthened by Christ who strengthens me. Hostility is converted to hospitality when I return to God the wall of concerns that I have been holding onto. He can then create free and fearless space for others to come in to my world. He calls me to keep that space open and create more space for those in need of His love.
I developed a support group for my patients and found that creating a nonjudgmental environment helped the patients let down their guard to share their gifts and stories. The painful past gets revealed and the search for new life can begin. When I concluded the group, one patient expressed that he did not feel any different yet his perception of life seemed different. Hospitality is not about changing anyone. It is about a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s sacredness. With dialogue, change naturally takes place and we discover we are part of a larger community with a common destination. In communion our differences become artificial as we all look beyond our current hardships to the glory of God.
From Illusion to Prayer: Longing for Christ as He Longs for us
“The silence of solitude is nothing but dead silence when it does not make us alert for a new voice sounding from beyond all human chatter. Hospitality leads only to a congested home when nobody is traveling anywhere.” (Nouwen, pg. 80) Solitude and hospitality cannot bear lasting fruit without being rooted in prayer, the core of spiritual life. The search within must go beyond myself to Him who speaks in the solitude of my heart. The reaching out to strangers is truly the reaching out to the gifts they carry to offer to God. In the past, I relied on myself to fill the void of loneliness and to form fellowship with others. This illusion of immortality where I am in control of a life which appears to have no end, inevitably leads to suffocating depression. One moment of stillness and I would feel the heaviness of heart. One moment of rejection and I would fall into dark despair. I could not go on as my own God. Who could I reach out to for air?
Through prayer, God breathed new life and new freedom in me. This Advent season, He calls me to stop my restless search for solutions and lay down my expectations to take a risk. To surrender all that I cherish. To awake from my slumber. To wait in patient anticipation for His coming in the midst of brokenness. As I wait, I discover how much God has filled my life with His footprints already. He waits for me to embrace Him in the deepest part of my inner being. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” Christ’ greatest act of love was his greatest act of suffering; therefore, a life of imitating Christ as we wait for His return is far from easy.
Fr. Henri Nouwen reminds us that we do not have to wait alone. Prayer is shared with others in the context of a community of faith. The members of the community are not to fulfill each other’s needs but to encourage and remind each other that we are for God and we wait for Him. I am tempted to run away from sisters who are different from me and remain with those with whom I am comfortable, but this shuts the light of God out. Through individual and community prayer, I am able to look beyond our individual differences and limitations and prepare the way of the Lord with my sisters. May we cast off the illusions that keep us in the dark and enter into the light of intimate union with Christ as we wait for the day of His final return. This is our common cause. This is our common vocation. Amen.