January 27, 2021

Nouwen on Ministry and the Wilderness

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Nouwen on Ministry and the Wilderness

The question with which I started this exploration of desert spirituality and contemporary ministry was: “How can we minister in an apocalyptic situation?” In a period of history dominated by the growing fear of a world that cannot be won and an increasing sense of impotence, the question of ministry is very urgent.

As a response to this question I have presented the words, “Flee from the world, be silent and pray always,” words spoken to the Roman aristocrat Arsenius who asked God how to be saved. Solitude, silence, and unceasing prayer form the core concepts of the spirituality of the desert. I consider them to be of great value for us who are ministers as we approach the end of the second millennium of Christianity.

Solitude shows us the way to let our behavior be shaped not by the compulsions of the world but by our new mind, the mind of Christ. Silence prevents us from being suffocated by our wordy world and teaches us to speak the Word of God. Finally, unceasing prayer gives solitude and silence their real meaning. Thus we enter through our heart into the heart of God, who embraces all of history with his eternally creative and recreative love.

But does not this spirituality of the desert close our eyes to the cruel realities of our time? No. On the contrary, solitude, silence, and prayer allow us to save ourselves and others from the shipwreck of our self-destructive society. The temptation is to go mad with those who are mad, and to go around yelling and screaming, telling everyone where to go, what to do, and how to behave. The temptation is to become so involved in the agonies and ecstasies of the last days that we will drown together with those we are trying to save.

• Henri Nouwen
The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry


  1. The “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” is a fifth-century text by / about ancient Egyptian monks. A curious feature is that although ostensibly Christian, Christ is barely mentioned in it. Instead, the Egyptian monks attempted to attain union with God through a range of aescetic practices, some of them very much like yoga.

    • ….and He wasn’t in the wind or the storm or the thunder, but in that still, small voice!

      It can be tough to hear Him over the radio, TV, internet and all the other noises in our day. Those years (or days or even minutes) alone and silent….that is where we can hear Him. The rest of the time, He isn’t silent, but He won’t shout over everything else!

      • This was to Chris, btw.

        Yoga? Might as well be sacrificing babies to Baal, it is so similar.

        • Adrienne says

          Pattie ~ could you expand on your Yoga comment?

          • Yoga teaches that man can become one with God through his own efforts. One ancient monk sat on top of a pillar for decades! (St. Simeon the Stylite.) There were many other, equally bizarre practices.

          • Sure, Adrienne….my point is that vivilfying yoga, even if one could stretch their mind (no pun intended!) to that practice being employed in the form we know it by the Desert Fathers , is a terribly silly ad hominum attack by someone who is trying is disparage their work and practice. In other words, I have to take issue with Biblicists who reject anything in Christianity that is not in black and white in the KJB, including the wisdom of these early followers of Christ.

            AND….worrying about ancients practicing centering prayer is a laughable attack on their character and spirituality. It is a non-issue, and our new guest seems to hold it on par with serious heracy.

          • I did not mention the “centering prayer,” and neither did the Desert Fathers. If you mean monologistic prayer, that’s basically the same as chanting mantras. It turns the name of Jesus, or phrases from scripture, into magical spells.

          • Florian, sweetie, I was talking to someone else. I am afraid that you have soooo many issues and misconceptions that trying to have a discussion with you is like explaining colors to a person who was born blind. I am sure you mean well, but you are speaking from a very tiny, dark cave, CONVINCED that there is nothing outside of your world and boxed-in faith.

    • (Clearing my throat…) And since the song “Amazing Grace” doesn’t mention the words “Jesus Christ”, or even “Jesus”, or just “Christ”, is it safe for us to assume that it is only ostensibly Christian?

      I find the correlation between yoga and the practices of the Desert Fathers to be quite a stretch. I believe I would have to have that idea in my mind before reading about their lives and sayings in order to find it. Just my opinion, for what it’s worth…

    • Jack Heron says

      If yoga has similarities to the practices of the Desert Fathers, so much the better for yoga.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Though some of the Desert Fathers in their isolation went beyond eccentric into genuinely WEIRD territory.

        I think that was the reason monks started grouping together in monasteries under a rule, to provide a daily reality check on each other.

  2. To join in the silence is to join in worship. To join in worship is to join in love. To join in love is to join in trinity.
    Psalm 45 ……”because he is your lord, worship him.”

  3. I spend in the range of 2 to 4 hours a day in my paint van driving around and doin’ stuff. A lenten observance this year has been to keep the radio off. That turns out to be a lot of silence. A fringe benefit is that it has made me a little more patient behind the wheel.

  4. Adrienne says

    “The temptation is to go mad with those who are mad, and to go around yelling and screaming, telling everyone where to go, what to do, and how to behave.”

    This is MY REPENTANCE this year. No more Lord. It is what I have been taught for almost 40 years but no more.

  5. One of my favorite all-time books. I think what a lot of folks don’t realize is that the Desert Fathers sought solitude in caves, on pillars, etc…which some folks might find bizarre, but they were constantly sought out by pilgrims for counsel, healing, and wisdom. Some only lived part of their lives in solitude, going to the desert to refuel from time to time. There is much wisdom to be found in their sayings.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Makes you wonder if some of the weird behavior was an attempt to discourage the fanboys.

      And then there’s the possibility of misinterpretation after-the-fact. Like one Desert Father who didn’t bathe for 30+ years. He was doing it to protest Christians spending so much time and money on cosmetics (and “buffing up”) when people were starving in the street. However, the reason was forgotten over time and the only thing remembered was that this Desert Father was (a) Holy and (b) Never Bathed, so obviously bathing had to be a sin…

      • Jack Heron says

        Remember what Diogenes said when asked if he really expected people to follow his example – ‘No, but I am like a choirmaster who must sing the loudest so that everyone can hit the right note’.

  6. Clay Crouch says

    I sure that you don’t realize this, but your posts over these past several days, at least to my reading come off as hubris cloaked in arrogance. How about treating your fellow posters with a little respect. And if not that, then at least a little love.

  7. I love this. In fact, I was thinking and praying about this very thing and then you wrote on it. My husband and I spend our mornings together in prayer and solitude before the Lord. I would like invite you to look at my blog just to gain insight from a person who is seeking the contemplative way. Please always feel free to share your thoughts. Your comments would be as refresing as an oasis in the desert. Thank you.

  8. I really like this reflection by Nouwen… and so much of his writing on silence and solitude. I have done quite a bit of research and writing on the wilderness experience, and one that may be of interest to folks is a recent blog entitled: “A Spiritual Formation Reflection: Why did the Desert Fathers Run Deep into the Desert to Reclaim their Culture? Was Running away Cowardly or Courageous?” http://www.outdoorleaders.com/237. Thanks again for this great blog post!

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