Henri Nouwen and Prayer

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal


I have recently been re-reading the works of the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who served as the pastor of a Church, had been a university professor, and finally the chaplain of a community for the “mentally challenged.” During the many different phases of his ministry, with all the changes that time and pain can bring, one thing remained consistent: from the mid-1960s until his death, Nouwen was an author.

Over the years he shared with us his experiences, his thoughts, his hopes and dreams in word, poem, and song. His life and ministry was, in may ways, a model for my own: his faithfulness, insight, and willingness to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit has inspired me to see that, even in the mundane and common things of this life, there is always the spark of the Spirit of the living God shining through into a world of darkness and despair. His insights have helped me through some of my own dark and lonely times, and his keen wisdom has always been the sharpest when it pointed me back to the power of God’s grace in my life. This has been true in and through all of the means of grace, but most especially in the means of grace called “prayer.” In his book Reaching Out Nouwen addresses prayer as a way not only for us to reach out to God, but for God to reach into our lives. So, taking a hint from his book, I want to ask you a very pointed question: Do you pray?

Prayer is critically important. All of the means of grace function through prayer. Our lives should be lit by, filled by, empowered by, and guided by prayer. There isn’t an element of our existence that should be left out our prayer relationship with God. Indeed, my experience has been that when I fail to take time to pray – when I fail to be intentional about, and protective of, my prayer time – not only do I miss it, but I inevitably run aground when the storm winds start blowing.

When I speak of prayer, I’m not talking about what most people do when they pray: namely, begging. Prayer is far more than just presenting your petitions before God, although prayer does, indeed, include that. Far too often, we fail – due to lack of time, or lack of will, or lack of knowing how – to allow God to speak to us. We say our little prayers, make our petitions, and then we move on to the next task in our life; it’s almost as if God is left sitting there, alone, saying “uh . . . .” Prayer involves more than just our talking to God; more important than what we say in prayer is what God says to us. Prayer is supposed to be more than just our begging God for things. Our prayer time is supposed to be a time for conversation with God, and in a conversation both we and God talk.

How do you let God speak to you? Do you sit in silence and listen for the voice of God? Do you use any means, any tools, any instruments to help you hear the voice of God? Human beings are naturally disposed toward the use of instrumentality; we need tools to help us do so much, and this is true of prayer as well. One of my favorite tools for prayer is the scriptures, and particularly the Psalms. By praying with and through the Psalms, we remove ourselves from the driver’s seat and allow God to move in and through our prayers, forming them and conforming them to the words of the Psalmist. In particular, I find helpful Psalm 23, Psalm 30:1-12, Psalm 42:1-5, Psalm 51:1-12, Psalm 63, Psalm 84:10-12, Psalm 86:1-7, Psalm 91, Psalm 121, Psalm 139, Psalm 145:1-16. There are many more excellent Psalms that can speak to us through our prayers, but these are among some of my favorites. They can also serve us well as models for prayer.

I offer this practice to you today. If you need help in praying, open your Bible to the Psalms and allow them to speak for you, and through you, to God. And, in them, listen for God’s voice, speaking back to you in the midst of your darkest night.

© 1994 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.