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Fearless Conversation with God: Henri Nouwen on Prayer and Introspection

James Wilhoit

How self-reflection may be hampering your prayer life

Scripture Press Chair of Christian Formation and Ministry, Wheaton College
December 5, 2014

Sometime in high school I became a very proficient practitioner of introspection. I’m sure like many adolescent habits, this one just gradually developed as a way of helping me sort out the conflicts and insecurities I was experiencing.

About this time I also began to grow deeper in my faith and my budding introspective side seemed to be something that earned points with leaders in the youth groups—“Jim is so thoughtful.”

Today, I owe so much to Henri Nouwen. I think he was the first person to gently challenge the helpfulness of my ingrained rumination. In his book, Clowning in Rome he asserted that, “Prayer is not introspection.” That struck me as such a needless truism: Of course. Who would confuse them?

But then he got me with his argument that introspection essentially renders us prayerless. We get so caught up in exploring our thoughts and responses and reliving events that there is no mental space to turn to God. As he says, “prayer asks us to break out of our monologue with ourselves and to imitate Jesus by turning our lives into an unceasing conversation” with God.

These words had power because I had recently really heard the gospel call to pray without ceasing and I realized my inner mental chatter was one of the great impediments to prayerfulness.

Below is the passage from Nouwen that I found so helpful in challenging my habitual introspection.

Prayer Is Not Introspection

To pray unceasingly is to channel our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God. Jesus’ life was a life lived in the presence of the Father, whom he loved. Jesus kept nothing, absolutely nothing, hidden from his Father. Jesus’ joys, his fears, his hopes, and his despairs were always shared in communion with his Father.

Therefore, Jesus could indeed say to his disciples: “…you will be scattered…leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (John 16:32). Thus prayer asks us to break out of our monologue with ourselves and to imitate Jesus by turning our lives into an unceasing conversation with the One we call God.

Prayer, therefore, is not introspection.

Introspection means to look inward, to enter into the complex network of our mental processes in search of some inner logic or some elucidating connections.

Introspection results from the desire to know ourselves better and to become more familiar with our own interiority.

Although introspection is a positive role in our thought processes, there is a danger that it may entangle us in a labyrinth of our own ideas, feelings, and emotions and lead us to an increasing self-preoccupation.

Introspection often causes paralyzing worries or unproductive self-gratification.

Introspection has the potential to create moodiness, and this moodiness is a very widespread phenomenon in our society.

It betrays our great concern with ourselves and our undue sensitivity to all our thoughts and feelings.

It leads us to experience life as a constant fluctuation between “feeling high” and “feeling low,” and between “good days” and “bad days,” and thus becomes a form of narcissism.

Prayer is not introspection.

It is not a scrupulous, inward-looking analysis of our own thoughts and feelings but it is an attentiveness to the Presence of Love personified inviting us to an encounter.

Prayer is the presentation of our thoughts—reflective, as well as daydreams, and night dreams—to the One who receives them, sees them in the light of unconditional love, and responds to them with divine compassion.

This context of thinking in the Presence, of conversation and dialogue with Love, is the joyful affirmation of our gentle Companion on the journey with God who knows our minds and hearts, our goodness and our beauty, out darkness and our light.

The Psalmist prays the prayer for us in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you search me and you know me,
You know my resting and my rising,
You discern my purpose from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down,
All my ways lie open to you [1-3]
O search me, God, and know my heart.
O test me and know my thoughts.
See that I follow not the wrong path
And lead me in the path of life eternal [23-24].

The movement from thinking random thoughts to living in communion with Love is a radical conversion of our mental processes. Gradually we move away from ourselves—our worries, preoccupations, and self-gratifications—and we direct all that we recognize as ours to the One who loves us, trusting that through love all will be made new.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation. New York: Image Books (Doubleday), 1979, pp. 68-70.

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