Prayer defined as opening of tight fist. “With Open Hands” by Henri Nouwen (Oct. 2008)

Susan's Thursday morning note October 24, 2008
With Open Hands by Henry Nouwen (defining prayer as opening of tight fist)

Good morning!  This week one morning I decided to keep the quiet & do what I encourage all of you to do – begin the day with some meaning.  Open a book.  In only twenty minutes I kept saying, “Oh, goodness, I have to write this on Thursday to all of you!”  The first reading was from With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen on prayer.  On trying to define prayer for us to understand… I hope I can choose for you enough to give you encouragement to have prayer and silence be a part of every moment of your day…

The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists.  This image shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear…When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fish and give up your last coin.  But who wants to do that?  A first prayer, therefore, is often a painful prayer because you discover you don’t want to let go.  You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it.  You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me.  I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now.  That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.”  Once you talk like that, you’ve already let the hope for a new life float by.  Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts.  You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future.  So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender…

Detachment is often understood as letting loose of what is attractive.  But it sometimes also requires letting go of what is repulsive (resentment, hatred, retaliation for past…) Sometimes it seems as though you might lose yourself along with your revenge and hate-so you stand there with balled-up fists closed to the One who wants to heal you.

When you want to pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands?…the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously.  Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway.  Don’t be afraid to offer your hate, bitterness, and disappointment to the One who is love and only love.  Even if you know you have little to show, don’t be afraid to let it be seen…Each time you let go and to surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving.  You must be patient…very patient until your hands are completely open.  It is a long spiritual journey of trust, for behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless.  Much has happened in your life to make all those fists, and at any hour of the day or night you might find yourself clenching your fists again out of fear.

Maybe someone will say, “You have to forgive yourself.”  But that isn’t possible.  What is possible is to open your hands without fear, so that the One who loves you can blow your sins away.  Then the coins you considered indispensable for your life prove to be little more than light dust which a soft breeze will whirl away…Then you feel a bit of new freedom and praying becomes a joy, a spontaneous reaction to the world and the people around you.  Praying  then becomes effortless, inspired and lively, or peaceful and quiet.  When you recognize the festive and the still moments as moments of prayer, then you gradually realize that to pray is to live.

His next section is on prayer and silence…how silence can be peaceful but also frightening because we’re so unaccustomed to it.  I have to put in this paragraph – I loved it!  Silence is full of sounds:  the wind murmuring, the leaves rustling, the birds flapping their wings, the wave washing ashore.  And even if these sounds cannot be heard, we still hear our own quiet breathing, the motion of our hands over our skin, the swallowing in our throats, and the soft patter of our footsteps.  But we have become dear to the sounds of silence…(with so much noise he states)..more difficult than getting rid of these exterior noises is the achievement of inner silence, a silence of the heart.  It seems that a person who is caught up in all that noise has lost touch with the inner self.  The questions that are asked from within remain unanswered.  Unsure feelings are not cleared up, tangled desires are not straightened out, and confusing emotions are not understood.  All that remains is a chaotic tumble of feelings which have never had a chance to be sorted out…when we shut off all the daily racket, a new inner noise can often be heard, rising from all those chaotic feelings and screaming for attention.  Entering into a quiet room doesn’t automatically bring us inner silence.  When there is no one to talk to or to listen to, and interior discussion may start up – often noisier than the noise we just escaped.  Many unsolved problems demand attention; one care forces itself upon the other; one complaint rivals the next, all pleading for a hearing.  Sometimes we are left powerless in the face of the many twisted sentiments we cannot untangle.

And one of my favorite paragraphs to read so far in my life (that was quite a setup for his next writing!!!)…To be calm and quiet by yourself is not the same as sleeping.  In fact, it means being fully awake and following with close attention every move going on inside of you.  It requires the discipline to recognize the urge to get up and go as a temptation to look elsewhere for what is really close at hand.  It offers the freedom to stroll through your own inner yard and to rake up the leaves and clear the paths so you can easily find the way to your heart.  Perhaps there will be fear and uncertainty when you first come upon this “unfamiliar terrain,” but slowly and surely you will discover an order and a familiarity which deepens your longing to stay at home with yourself…Under this gentle regime, we can once again become masters in our own house.  Not only during the day, but during the night as well.  Not only when we are awake, but also when we sleep.  For the one who has the day will gain the night as well.  Sleep is no longer a strange darkness, but a friendly curtain behind which dreams continue to speak and to send out messages which can be gratefully received.  The paths of our dreams become as trustworthy as the paths of our waking hours, and there is no longer any need to be afraid.

He then writes on Prayer and Acceptance, Prayer and Hope, Prayer and Compassion.  How do I take out any of what I just typed?  I don’t want to write too much, but the writings are fighting me for a spot on this note!  This book is very small, very easy to read, and I truly encourage you to get one & keep it somewhere that you can pick it up whenever you have a few minutes and gain immediate strength.  Through prayer.  Looking up to heaven.  Opening our hands.  Peace.  Strength.  Surrender.  All only a breath and glance away.  Thank you for letting me write to you on Thursdays.  Go make yourself proud with decisions you make today – even if no one but yourself knows of your decision.  Decision to move forward.  To make life count.  If your life is miserable then do something for someone else.  Give yourself a recess today from your reality.  I hope I’m at the store when you come in, but if I’m not – know I thank you for coming & for telling your friends about us!  If you’re frustrated trying to get your crops in, I hope the rain skips your field this week, but if you have no crops – I hope you can have the best hot chocolate or coffee ever presented to you and you can curl up with an incredible book!  Susan

Latin for this week:
caelitus mihi vires - My strength is from heaven.  (I can't believe I never found that one before today!)

Works Cited:
Nouwen, Henri J.M.  With Open Hands.  Notre Dame.  Ave Marie Press.  1972.