Prayer Made Sense When Henrí Nouwen Told Me to Give Up

My oldest son, who is almost five, carries a sea turtle stuffed animal with him just about everywhere he goes. Sea turtle chats with the lobsters at the supermarket, goes down the slide at the playground, and provides a comfortable conversation starter when he’s surrounded by adults and other children at church.

With sea turtle in hand, I see his humor, kindness, and playfulness shine through. Most evenings he’ll say goodnight to me and then he has the turtle look at me and say in a deep voice, “Goodniiiiiiiiiiiight!”

While reflecting on the comforting place of “sea turtle” in my son’s life, it hit me that I have often carried The Way of the Heart by Henrí Nouwen in my briefcase throughout the week much like my son carries his turtle.

About two years ago, I started rereading The Way of the Heart. I paused to underline sentences and then whole paragraphs on every other page.

Nouwen begins The Way of the Heart with the prayer of desert father, Abba Arsenius, who asked God to show him the way of salvation. God spoke to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.” This call to “flee” prompted him to leave his comfortable life in Rome in pursuit of God in the desert of Egypt.

Nouwen recasts the vision of Arsenius for us today: “We are responsible for our own solitude. Precisely because our secular milieu offers us so few spiritual disciplines, we have to develop our own. We have, indeed, to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.”

As Nouwen described the state of modern society, I got the impression that he had direct access to my calendar, where my life is more or less scheduled down to the minute most days. He writes:

“Our calendars 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.”

Nouwen’s assessment hit me like a punch in the gut. I dove into my over-scheduled days, struggling to find a place for God, and when I did carve out a big of space for God, I ended up disappointed and unfulfilled. God appeared to be hiding from me or I’d somehow lost God’s favor.

I wanted a spiritual quick fix to the alienation I felt from God. Nouwen, my comforting equivalent of my son’s sea turtle, offered a more realistic path forward: “The words flee, be silent and pray summarize the spirituality of the desert. They indicate the three ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image and are thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.”

Rather than giving me more words to say, more scriptures to study, or better ways to organize my schedule with apps or hacks, Nouwen suggests that the way forward is one of surrender or retreat. Pull back from the concerns of today and be still before God. Nouwen writes, “Silence is the way to make solitude a reality. The Desert Fathers praise silence as the safest way to God.”

Out of these simple spiritual movements, I found a different path forward toward God that didn’t try to carve a path into my packed schedule. This new path obliterated it. Flee, Be Silent, Pray.

There were no goals or spiritual benchmarks. I stopped talking about feeling God’s presence or having some kind of mountaintop experience. I had to live by faith, trusting that God is present whether I am silent or speaking. I stopped trying to say the right words to make God “poke” me with spiritual assurance. I withdrew and surrendered in silence before the God I trusted to be present.

There are no quick fixes here, but there is change that will happen. Nouwen writes, “Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.”

These acts of retreating away from every spiritual practice I’ve relied on and surrendering to the void of silence were far outside my comfort zone. Simply seeing Nouwen’s book provided a comfort that perhaps I wasn’t just making all of this up.

This is a slow, challenging process that requires discipline, but it also puts zero pressure for spiritual development on those who heed the words flee, be silent, pray. My only role is to rest in God’s presence without guarantees of mountaintop experiences or incredible revelations. It’s the slow and steady practice of prayer and living by faith.

Even if my only role is to trust and surrender, I still find this kind of surrender challenging. Perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to carry that copy of Henri Nouwen’s book in my bag throughout the day.

Learn more about my journey into contemplative prayer that was inspired by

Henrí Nouwen and other writers in my new book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

$2.99 on Kindle || $9.99 in print

Ed Cyzewski

Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide, Flee, Be Silent, Pray; Pray, Write, Grow; and other books. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com and is on Twitter at @edcyzewski.

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  • That thought from Nouwen, “Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end” was/is life-changing for me. When I forget this vital part of my spiritual life, I make it into an end rather than a space in itself.

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    As an evangelical with a strong charismatic background I have had a lot of un-learning to do in regards to whether God’s presence is actually ‘there’ when I’m in church or praying or in my alone times. He IS there, here, wherever we are when we give Him room to move in…. The shift has been subtle in my life over the last several years away from all the ‘have-to’s’ to assure God shows up. Now it’s more of a surrender as you say.
    Your book is so needed, now, Ed. I pray it is well-received.