Is prayer selfish and delusional?


Last week I wrote a bit about Henri Nouwen’s suggestion that we try to avoid recognising our mortality and our limitations by thinking of ourselves as immortal, invulnerable beings. (He wrote about this in his book Reaching Out.) If we trick ourselves into thinking we can completely control our environment and the people around us we end up doing violence to them.

I think the way we’ve often thought about prayer has been as a way to control things, like a religious version of the law of positive attraction. It can be just another way of pretending we’re in control of the universe. A while ago I knew a guy who repeatedly asked me why I prayed. He saw it as a selfish thing to be asking God for things. I think I get where he was coming from.

Nouwen’s challenge is to try and pray without an agenda. He describes this as waiting on God rather than rattling off a shopping list. It’s making space where God’s presence may (or may not) show up. He suggests paradoxically that we find God in God’s absence. Our experience of God’s absence leads us to search for God. That search for God is what prayer is. This approach comes across to me as a lot more humble. It’s not pretending we have God on call.

I don’t what to throw out the idea of asking God for thing either though. I think those kind of prayers do seem pretty selfish when if it’s a wealthy person asking God for more stuff, expecting the universe to revolve at our convenience. I don’t think it seems like that when people who are in serious trouble ask God for help (not knowing if God is even there) because there is no other option available. For those of us in more comfortable situations, we might find ourselves praying in that way too, if we open ourselves up to people who are suffering.

The illusion of immortality

I’ve recently written a few posts about Henri Nouwen’s three movements of the spiritual life, as related in his book Reaching Out. In the third section of the book talks about our efforts to avoid death, pretending we can control of our life, that we have no limits. When we’re under this illusion, solitude and hospitality can become just achievements that we show off to others to show how great we are. Having an arthritic condition that’s previously put me out of action for a long period of time, I should be aware of my limitations, but I still fall for this illusion. At the moment I’m needing to let go of some of the things I feel like I could be doing (or should be doing). It’s about trusting that it’s okay to be limited and for some things to be undone.


This probably isn’t what we’d think of as prayer, because we’re used to thinking of prayer as a religious practise where we ask God for things. But Nouwen talks about this as a movement toward prayer.

Gastvrijheid: freedom for the guest

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen talks about hospitality as ‘freedom for the guest’. (He says this is the literal meaning of the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid.) This means that we aren’t welcoming the guest in order to try and change them. Instead we’re welcoming them into a space of emptiness, a space where transformation might happen, but where we don’t know what the transformation might look like. It’s not a space where we’re seeking to influence them to take on our ideology, religion or way of life. It’s not a space that the host tries to fill with themself. It’s a space where the host and guest can discover each other and potentially be transformed by the encounter.

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Growing a garden of solitude in the desert of loneliness

In a few weeks our household is hosting a learning circle on the idea that hospitality is ‘making room’. Our thoughts about this have been influenced a lot by the writing of Henri Nouwen – in particular his book Reaching Out. Some of us used to draw on his ideas when we were working in the city. I thought I’d some blog posts over the next few weeks explaining ‘making room’.

In Reaching Out, Nouwen described a spirituality that helps to sustain hospitality. Nouwen was coming from a specifically Roman Catholic perspective, but I think his ideas could be useful to people from a range of different religious or non-religious locations. From Nowen’s perspective, spiritual growth involved reaching out in three different directions:

  • reaching toward ourselves, by moving from loneliness to solitude
  • reaching toward others, by moving from hostility to hospitality
  • reaching toward God, by moving from illusion to prayer (this one comes across as the most religious, so feel free decide whether that is or isn’t for you)

When describing the movement from loneliness to solitude, Nouwen noted that our globalised society doesn’t make space for solitude. The normal mode of operating is to try and fill our space with people and busyness. We think that we’re going to escape loneliness by crowding ourselves in with people and activity. Nouwen reckoned that by expecting other people to take away our loneliness we’re actually putting an unreasonable burden on them. By expecting other people to take away our loneliness, we doom them to disappoint us.

Nouwen believed that what we actually need to do is come to terms with our aloneness. This was how he believed we could move from loneliness to solitude. He talked about entering the desert of loneliness and gradually beginning to grow a garden of solitude there. Nouwen said that if we can become content being alone, this prepares us to be part of community. Coming to terms with our aloneness allows us to participate in hospitality without burdening others with our demands.