Nouwen: happy are those who carry the Psalms in their hearts

Giovannino de Grassi Psalm 118 (119), Biblioteca Nazionale Florence via wikimedia commonsSince my time in seminary I have been praying the Psalms according to the two month plan offered in the  Book of Common Prayer.    The Psalms, of course, have served as perhaps the greatest source of wisdom and guidance in the history of Christian worship and spirituality.  They are indeed “the prayer book of the Bible”  (Bonhoeffer), and can give voice to our own prayers in an amazing variety of circumstances.

As time goes by, I find myself less inclined to attempt to compose my own prayers.  I would much rather submit myself to these rich forms of prayer that have nourished and inspired my brothers and sisters down through the centuries.      

I think those of us who find ourselves in “free” worship traditions tend to think of extemporaneous prayer as superior, because we assume it to be more authentic and sincere than the offering of prayers that have been written by another.  But this presupposes that prayer is, first and foremost, an expressive practice – a form of speech through which we pour out our self before God.  While it is certainly true that prayer has this expressive dimension, it is also a formative practice.  The prayers that we utter and hear on the lips of others are  shaping our understanding of God, his Church, ourselves, and the world around us.  The sincerity of a spontaneous prayer is important, but so is the depth and thoughtfulness of a written prayer – and no prayers have greater depth than the prayers of the Psalms.

This morning I was reading a bit of Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, and came across these thoughts on how the recitation of Psalms during Compline brought him strength and comfort.  Commenting on Psalm 90, he writes:

Slowly these words enter into the center of my heart. They are more than ideas, images, comparisons: They become a real presence.  After a day with much work or with many tensions, you feel that you can let go in safety and realize how good it is to dwell in the shelter of the Most High.

Nouwen Genesee DiaryMany times I have thought: If I am ever sent to prison, if I am ever subjected to hunger, pain, torture, or humiliation, I hope and pray that they let me keep the Psalms.  The Psalms will keep my spirit alive, the Psalms will allow me to comfort others, the psalms will prove the most powerful, yes, the most revolutionary weapon against the oppressor and torturer.  How happy are those who no longer need books but carry the Psalms in their heart wherever they are and wherever they go.   Maybe I should start learning the Psalms by heart so that nobody can take them away from me.  Just to be able to say over and over again:

O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
will you love what is futile and false?
It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
the Lord hears me whenever I call him (Ps. 4)

That is a prayer that really can heal many wounds.

Like Nouwen, I hope that as I absorb the prayers of the Psalms on a daily basis, they will sink in to my bones, and lodge themselves in my heart, so that they provide me strength and nourishment during the trials that surely lie ahead.

Sermon: the Kingdom for Beginners


Matthew 18:1-14

Preached at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church, Scarborough, ON

March 11, 2012

Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, psychologist, and author, who is considered to be one of the finest spiritual writers of recent memory; his books have impacted millions of Christians around the world.  He was originally from Holland, but came to United States for graduate school and ended up teaching at some of the finest universities in the world: Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  But in his early fifties, after 20 years of living a very privileged life as an academic and famous author, Nouwen decided to give it all up and move to Richmond Hill, believe it or not.  Why Richmond Hill?  He came to join the l’Arche community there, called l’Arche Daybreak.

Some of you have probably heard of l’Arche.  It was founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964 as a community for people with intellectual disabilities, or mental handicaps, and has spread around the world to 40 countries.  L’Arche is French for “the ark,” as in Noah’s Ark. L’Arche takes a unique, faith-based approach to providing homes for people with disabilities.  It is not at all like a nursing home. There are no “clients,” there are no “patients,” and there are no “staff.” At l’Arche, the “able” the “disabled” live together in community, in fact they live together in regular houses, and they relate to one another like families more than anything else.  Everyone is treated as a person of equal respect and dignity; they all take responsibility for their household, and they have relationships of mutual support and accountability.  Their households have close to a one-on-one ratio of non-disabled and disabled people.  You might think, that doesn’t sound very efficient!  Do they really need one non-disabled person for each disabled person?  But the point of l’Arche is not to be efficient, but to be a place where everyone is valued as a child of God.

So in 1985 Henri Nouwen left Harvard to move to l’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. He abandoned the most exclusive circles of intellectual life in order to live amongst people who were intellectually disabled.  And, for the rest fo his life, much of his writing focused on how much he learned from these supposedly disabled people.  In his wonderful book, In the Name of Jesus, he says,

“The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then.  Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.”(27)

The fact that he was a Harvard professor meant nothing to these people. He was used to relying on his credentials and his accomplishments to impress everyone, but suddenly he was put into a place where people didn’t care about how many letters he had after his name.  He continues,

“I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment.  In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again.” (28)

In spite of all that he had accomplished, this very accomplished man was learning to become a beginner again.  And he found that, when he humbled himself and became a beginner, he learned a lot about following Jesus.›š

I think of Henri Nouwen’s experience of “starting life all over again” when I read this story in Matthew 18, where Jesus calls the disciples to humble themselves and become like little children…

Read the rest here: Sermon 120311 MATTHEW 18 1 to 14