With Open Hands

Henri Nouwen, from Compassion, as excerpted in The Only Necessary Thing, pp 92-93.

In a society that seems to be filled with urgencies and emergencies, prayer appears to be an unnatural form of behavior. Without fully realizing it, we have accepted the idea that “doing things” is more important than prayer and have come to think of prayer as something for times when there is nothing urgent to do…

Concentrated human effort is necessary because prayer is not our most natural response to the world. Left to our own impulses, we will always want to do something else before we pray. Often, what we want to do seems so unquestionably good – setting up a religious education program, helping with a soup kitchen, listening to people’s problems, visiting the sick, planning the liturgy, working with prisoners or mental patients – that it is hard to realize that even these things can be done with impatience and so become signs of our own needs rather than of God’s compassion.

Therefore, prayer is in many ways the criterion of Christian life. Prayer requires that we stand in God’s presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing. This is difficult in a climate where the predominate counsel is “Do your best and God will do the rest.” When life is divided into “our best” and “God’s rest,” we have turned prayer into a last resort to be used only when all our own resources are depleted. Then even the Lord has become the victim of our impatience. Discipleship does not mean to use God when we can no longer function ourselves. On the contrary, it means to recognize that we can do nothing at all, but that God can do everything through us. As disciples, we find not some but all of our strength, hope, courage, and confidence in God. Therefore, prayer must be our first concern.

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