I’m working my way through a Lenten devotional by the late priest, Henri Nouwen. The devotional is titled Show Me The Way and I would recommend it highly. Sunday’s reading was so impactful that I couldn’t resist sending it to all of you who are so faithful to and support of the Seeking Stillness ministry. This entry is entitled “The Seclusion of the Heart.” Enjoy.
God does not see as human beings see; they look at appearances, but Yahweh looks at the heart. ~1 Samuel 16:7
Secularity is a way of being dependent on the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self that 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 like, praised, admired, dislike, hated, or despised….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.
These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of a secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. It is not so strange that Anthony (one of the first century monks who lived a cloistered life in the deserts of Egypt) and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian, but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.
Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.1
Our heart is at the center of our being human. There our deepest thoughts, intuitions, emotions, and decisions find their source. But it’s also there that we are often most alienated from ourselves. We know little or nothing of our own heart. We keep our distance, as though we were afraid of it. What is most intimate is also what frightens us most. Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden centers; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such or such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house. The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make his love known to us there, to free us from our fears, and to make our deepest self know to us. In the privacy of our heart, therefore, we can learn not only to know Jesus but, through Jesus, ourselves as well.
Lots to think about as we travel with Jesus to the cross.