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Prayer & the Jealous God

WHY DO WE AVOID PRAYING?

By Henri J. M. Nouwen | June 1985
The Rev. Prof. Henri J. Nouwen is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht in Holland, and Professor of Divinity and Horace DeY. Lentz Lecturer at Harvard University’s Divinity School, where he teaches during the spring semester of each year. During the remainder of the year he works on his writing and ministers in Latin America. The author of 18 books and numerous articles on Christian ministry and the spiritual life, he is a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Recently I was given the opportunity to spend a whole month in prayer. I didn’t have to worry about cooking meals, answering mail, receiv­ing visitors, teaching classes, writing books, or any­thing that usually keeps me quite busy. My only task was to be with God and God alone. I had al­ways dreamt of such a possibility. I had envisioned it as a time of true peace and joy. What could be more wonderful than to dwell in the presence of my Lord?

But when my dream became a reality I exper­ienced unexpected resistance within myself. I felt restless and anxious. I was not so sure anymore if I truly wanted all that time for God. I became ner­vous about getting bored and I started to look for all sorts of excuses to do other things than pray: Maybe I should do some good reading about pray­er. Maybe I should teach someone about prayer. Maybe I should lead some prayer services for friends. But only pray for a whole month? That suddenly seemed crazy, and I found myself run­ning from what I had desired so much.

I am sharing this personal experience because I think we all have both a deep desire to pray and a deep resistance against it. We want to be close to God, but we also want to keep some distance. We want real inner peace, but we also want to hold on to the excitement of the restless search.

Why this attraction and repulsion at the same time? Why do we have so many difficulties in do­ing what we say we fervently desire? Why do we re­sist so forcefully what we so desperately need? Some respond to these questions by saying: “Well, we are busy people and we have so many things to do…there is really not much time left to pray.” That sounds quite reasonable. But when we have to wait for delayed airplanes we read Time and Newsweek, but do we pray? When we sit for long hours in the train we have nice long chats with our fellow travelers, but do we pray? When we have a whole evening without concrete plans we watch TV, go to a movie, read a book, write some letters, or make some long phone calls, but do we pray?

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