I just finished reading Henri Nouwen's book "The Way of the Heart". It is a short little book of about 100 pages, but it tackles some of the learnings that have come from the "Desert Fathers" and their insistence that solitude, silence and listening prayer are at the heart of The Way and the way of the heart. This book was so powerful to read especially as I "try to" settle into a "time away" from the "daily routines" of ministry. I can't believe how hard it is to pull away and "spend time all by myself". My mind will race with thoughts and my brain will try to convince itself that everything is quite alright, but the current is strong and the undertow fierce. It pulls me back out to sea if I step into the surf even up to my ankles. Henri Nouwen had a name for this: The Compulsive Minister. I wanted to share the quote in his book that has been branded into my being for the last several days:
Thomas Merton writes in the introduction to his the wisdom of the Desert:
Society .... was regarded [by the Desert Fathers] as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. ... These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and value of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.
Henri Nouwen then writes...
This observation leads us straight to the core of the problem. Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.
Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calenders are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing. We simply go along with the many "musts" and "oughts" that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people !
All this is simple to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self, is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependent on the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. "compulsive" is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sogn of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same - more work, more money, more friends.
I love reading books for many reasons, but quotes like this are among the main ones. Things that I would have wondered about or maybe even felt but not been able to frame with words are written down waiting years for me to come across them. Some 30 years after this was penned, I happen upon it and none too soon.
Lord, save me from myself.