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Useless Prayer by Henri Nouwen


“WHY should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?

The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.

What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. the question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical, or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.

The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning — day after day, week after week, month after month — in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that He sent His only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long.

I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me far beyond my noisy place.

So: Be confident and trust in the Lord.”

From The Road to Daybreak, by Henri Nouwen (New York: Image Books, 1989).

In real life, amusingly, Nouwen was a fidgety pray-er. Michael Andrew Ford writes, “Nouwen could rarely sit still for long. When he was in prayer, he fidgeted, coughed and moved but seemed to have no awareness he was doing it. His apparently restless and distracted prayer nurtured him. While his body was twitching, his spirit could be deeply present to God.”

The writer Parker Palmer describes Nouwen at a Quaker retreat centre where the traditional gathering in silence was practised for 45 minutes every morning:

“I was conscious of being in the company of a world-class contemplative and I was expecting to have an extraordinary experience sitting next to him during worship. But as we sat in this plain, unadorned room and settled into the silence, I realised that the bench was moving. I opened my eyes, glanced to my left and saw Henri’s leg working furiously. He was anxiously trying to settle but without much success. As time went on, the fidgeting got worse. I opened my eyes again only to find him checking his watch to see what time it was.”

Ford continues, “Nouwen’s primary need for prayer meant he was completely oblivious to more mundane things. He would dash to the bathroom wherever he was staying and shower without closing the curtain, soaking the place in water. Then, without looking in the mirror, he would shave as quickly as possible, so he could get downstairs and be with God. As a result, he often ended up with a one inch patch of old whiskers on his neck and fresh soap in his ear.

“Contemplation was at the heart of Henri Nouwen’s life. It was a discipline of dwelling in the presence of God. Nouwen was convinced that Christian leaders need to reclaim the mystical so that every word they speak, each idea they have and every strategy they develop, will emerge from a heart which knows God intimately.”

Excerpt found at

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