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The Paradox of Prayer by Henri J.M. Nouwen

  Suggested readings by Henri J.M. Nouwen: Sabbatical Journey and Here and Now.   For information on the books, click on the blue and it will take you to the appropriate page on   

The paradox of prayer is that we have to learn how to pray while we can only receive it as a gift. It is exactly this paradox that clarifies why prayer is the subject of so many seemingly contrasting statements.

All the great saints in history and all the spiritual directors worth their salt say that we have to learn to pray, since prayer is our first obligation as well as our highest calling. Libraries have been written about the question of how to pray. Many men and women have tried to articulate the different forms and levels of their impressive experiences, and have encouraged their readers to follow their road. They remind us repeatedly of St. Paul’s words: "Pray constantly" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and often give elaborate instructions on bow to develop an intimate relationship with God. We even find different "schools of prayer," and, not surprisingly, elaborate arguments in favor of one school or another.

One such school or tradition is Hesychasm. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian Hesychast, offers a beautiful example of an instruction in prayer when be writes: Make yourself a rule always to be with the Lord, keeping your mind in your heart and do not let your thoughts wander; as often as they stray, turn them back again and keep them at home in the closet of your heart and delight in conversing with the Lord.

There is no doubt that Theophan, and with him all great spiritual writers, consider a serious discipline essential to arriving at an intimate relationship with God. For them, prayer, without a continuous and arduous effort, is not worth talking about. In fact, some spiritual writers have written down their efforts to pray in such concrete and vivid details that they often leave the reader with the erroneous impression that you can reach any level of prayer by just hard work and stern perseverance. This impression has created many disillusions since many felt, after long years of strenuous "prayer work," that they were farther away from God than when they started.

But the same saints and spiritual guides, who speak about the discipline of prayer, also keep reminding us that prayer is a gift of God. They say that we cannot truly pray by ourselves, but that it is God’s spirit who prays in us. St. Paul put it very clearly: "No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless be is under the influence of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). We cannot force God into a relationship. God comes to us on his own initiative, and no discipline, effort, or ascetic practice can make him come. All mystics stress with an impressive unanimity that prayer is "grace," that is, a free gift from God, to which we can only respond with gratitude. But they hasten to add that this precious gift indeed is within our reach. In Jesus Christ, God has entered into our lives in the most intimate way, so that we could enter into his life through the Spirit. That is the meaning of the powerful words Jesus spoke to his apostles on the evening before his death: "I must tell you the truth: it is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate [the Spirit] will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). In Jesus, God became one of us to lead us through Jesus into the intimacy of his divine life. Jesus came to us to become as we are and left us to allow us to become as he is. By giving us his Spirit, his breath, he became closer to us than we are to ourselves. It is through this breath of God that we can call God "Abba, Father" and can become part of the mysterious divine relationship between Father and Son. Praying, in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, therefore, means participating in the intimate life of God himself.

Thomas Merton writes: The union of the Christian with Christ… is a mystical union in which Christ Himself becomes the source and principle of life in me. Christ Himself… "breathes" in me divinely in giving me His Spirit.

There is probably no image that expresses so well the intimacy with God in prayer as the image of God's breath. We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness (the Latin word for anxiety is angustia, narrowness) and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew.

So, the paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either. This paradox of prayer forces us to look beyond the limits of our mortal existence. To the degree that we have been able to dispel our illusion of immortality and have come to the full realization of our fragile mortal condition, we can reach out in freedom to the creator and re-creator of life and respond to his gifts with gratitude.

Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayers is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on his terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer, therefore, is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is bard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many "safe" gods to the God whose love has no limits.

God is "beyond," beyond our heart and mind, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, and beyond all the events and experiences that make up our life. Still he is in the center of all of it. Here we touch the heart of prayer since here it becomes manifest that in prayer the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence no longer really distinguishes. In prayer, God’s presence is never separated from his absence and God’s absence is never separated from his presence. His presence is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. His absence, on the other band, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of his presence. This is powerfully expressed in Psalm 22:1-5: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? … In you our ancestors trusted… and you rescued them… Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help… Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you."

Condensed from, Reaching Out by Henri J.M. Nouwen. 1975 Doubleday & Co.

  Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the April 1998 edition of the San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.