Chapter 3, A Self-Emptied Heart
It is completely counter-intuitive to “work” toward discipline and achievement by submitting. We think we must work hard, and then harder. We think we must do certain things over and over until we get them right. The truth is that our most important lesson is to learn that we never will get it right. We can only get the Spirit. If we are where the Spirit leads, if we are doing what the Spirit asks, our weakness, our failure, our inability to do anything but fail becomes immaterial. We do the obedience; the Spirit does the accomplishment.
Nouwen speaks of three disciplines that lead us to empty our hearts in order that Christ may fill them.
The Discipline of the Church is so much more than the phrase “go to church” ever implies. When I was a little girl, “go to church” was a very important weekly event. I had special “church” clothes. We had special Sunday dinner on that day. I vividly remember my red patent leather purse in which Mother put my special church handkerchief with a nickel tied up in the corner for my Sunday School offering. To a six-year-old, those were the important things about “going to church,” but that is not what the discipline of the church is.
The discipline of the church, says Nouwen, “is the discipline by which we as a people represent the living Christ in time and space.” This is what the liturgy is all about. I did not grow up with the liturgy. In the churches of my childhood, worship services had little that would remind anyone of the liturgy I enjoy so much today. Nouwen writes of liturgical worship as “the celebration by the people of God of the Christ-event.” That certainly fits my experience. As we progress through the seasons, certain elements are changeless, timeless, while others morph from season to season telling the story of the Christ event, reliving the Christ event, bringing the Christ event to life for us each week. As Nouwen points out, “Christ is God acting in human history” and in the liturgy, we celebrate and live that work every week. We empty our lives of self and fill our selves up with Christ.
In the secular world, such discipline is not respected. In fact, churches are seen as hierarchies and rule-makers, not focal points for personal transformation. Nouwen does not try to deal with that issue, his focus being those who are faithful and trying to grow in faith. Nevertheless, those who are faithful must live in the midst of people who either dismiss or actually attack the idea of church or the liturgy. To those who do not know Christ and who do not enter into the liturgy as the discipline Nouwen describes, the liturgy becomes an empty ritual of repetitive phrases whose only redeeming feature is an occasional poetic or musical mountaintop.
The discipline of the book is the way the Word of God continues to become flesh in us. That idea is overwhelming. Yet, anyone who reads the Word of God with heart and soul fully engaged has this experience. By means of meditation, which Henri Nouwen defines as, “the discipline of inner attentiveness to the Word,” we take in the Spirit and the power of the Word, and we are “formed into living Christs.” It is a sacramental experience, and it is world-changing. When we engage in this discipline, it is easy to be distracted by Satan’s whispers that we should be relevant, spectacular and powerful. Instead of learning from what we read, we must allow the reading of the Book shape our lives. Our temptation to learn draws us back to the temptation to upward mobility. The discipline of being shaped takes us downward with Christ to lives of service. We empty ourselves of accomplishments and fill ourselves up with Christ.
Even within the church, however, the discipline of the book is falling into disrepute. Some Christian scholars treat the Bible as the expression of human beings at a specific stage in the evolution of human beings. They interpret ancient texts as if the words and situations must be reframed by contemporary ideas. The revelation of absolute truth is melted down in a crucible of human reason in order to arrive at a new thing on the earth, a human telling God what truth is. These scholars say things like, “The Bible does not address things that we know today, so we must act on our new knowledge without being limited by the Bible’s old ideas.” It is hard for faithful Christians to share the faith with secular thinkers, but it is even harder when church leaders keep changing the message. Nouwen would undoubtedly find that situation to be yet another example of Satan’s temptation to be relevant.
Who among us can go empty-handed into the place of solitude? Yet this is the deepest discipline, the discipline of the heart, the discipline that leads us away from a heart that “ought” and “must” be busy about church work to the very heart of God. This is the sort of prayer that leads us to take up burdens we would prefer not to bear. In the heart of God, those burdens are lightened. If we cannot escape our own needs, then the burdens of others will be too heavy.
This discipline puts people of faith in the most stark contrast to secular thinkers. Secular thinking requires that each person recognize that this world is all there is. Secular thinkers cannot empty themselves. Secular thinkers dare not empty themselves. There is nothing else. They must do it all themselves. They must choose and work and advance entirely on their own. Secular thinks believe that if we fail, we fail on our own. Unlike secular thinker, people of faith need only be faithful, not successful. Obedience is our part; success is the work of the Spirit.
Nouwen recommends something many people will find troubling. He recommends a spiritual director. This person will have the obligation to inquire about, and we would have the obligation to report, the status of our prayer life. Who wants that? Does anyone voluntarily give someone else the right to ask, “So, why didn’t you take time to pray this morning?” Yet without some external force, someone to monitor our days, it may not be possible for us to let go of self and let go of our own needs enough to empty self and be filled with Christ.
How do we go downward with Christ into complete servitude? We empty our selves and let self be filled up with Christ. The three disciplines – the church, the book and the heart – it sounds quite simple. Yet anyone who is honest will not find it so simple. To empty self and be mastered by the Spirit is to descend from the heights of self-fulfillment to the depths of service and self-effacement. It is an essential path, but few find it.