I really appreciated the way chapter 8 started out. With the title, “Open Your Heart: Discerning Divine Presence” Nouwen points us to the small things. To me this seems more “doable” and specific rather than trying to contemplate the abstract vastness and entirety of God’s divine presence. Nouwen conveys to us through his daily practice of an hour devoted to this relationship with God through quiet prayer and meditation. He too gets distracted and at times does not follow through because of fatigue, busyness, or distraction. When aware he has listened to these arguments for not having that time of prayer each day he begins to experience his days as, “a series of random incidents and accidents rather than divine appointments and encounters.”
It seems comforting and encouraging to hear from Nouwen that his times of prayer and meditation are not overly fulfilling for him and he even relates them as seemingly, “useless” times each day where his senses are not satisfied. Yet, these regular useless times must still have a powerful way of connecting him with the divine as he confesses that God is greater than his senses, his thoughts or his heart as he believes the Lord does speak to him, see him, and embrace him in those moments of prayer even if he is feeling restless, distracted, confused, or bored. Nouwen believes that God connects to him in ways and places that are hidden even to himself but through prayer, God’s subtleness, smallness, quietness, and hiddenness begin to sprout like a shoot coming forth from a stump.
The chapter continues by Nouwen exploring the scripture story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who experience the risen Christ (Luke 24:13-35). Nouwen names four practices in the pattern of discerning God’s hidden presence as he walks through in the scripture story and holds up for use in daily life. The pattern is marked by: interpretation of scripture, staying, breaking bread, and remembering.
As Jesus appeared and walked along with these two disciples he opened the scriptures to them beginning with Moses and all the prophets Jesus interpreted the things about himself to them. In the midst of their grief Jesus changes their view of the suffering and death of Jesus as fulfilling the scriptures which pointed to suffering, death, and pain not being obstacles of God’s glory or eternal life or marking God’s absence but that God’s presence embraced these and made a way to even experience God’s presence, glory, and eternal life through them.
As they came to the village Jesus walked ahead as if going on but the disciples urged him, “Stay with us…” Jesus doesn’t ask for an invitation but does accept theirs. The word and action of “staying” is similar to “abiding” or “remaining.” Staying with Jesus is often an inner staying and connection that is life-giving like hearing that a branch must stay connected to part of the vine to bear fruit.
Jesus enters the home with them and they suddenly recognize him in the particular way he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and offered it to others. This sitting down for a meal and giving thanks (Eucharist is the Greek word) is very ordinary and yet was so obvious and still different that now the disciples know who this stranger is and that Jesus is still with them in a resurrected body. The disciples experience Jesus in hospitality, companionship, and compassion in home tired from a journey.
Not long after the disciples recognize Jesus as their eyes are opened, then Jesus disappears from their sight. In the moment they recognize his presence he is no longer there with them. To say in another way, the time Jesus becomes most spiritually present he also becomes physically absent. This deep theological insight connects with communion with Jesus through the mystery of faith and the paradox of Christ being with us, yet we await his full return as well. Remembering wraps this encounter together and allows the disciples to know Jesus by heart. The burning heart experience they had revealed Jesus to them on their way and reminded them they were not alone.
This pattern of movements is discernable in our communion practice celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. May we be drawn close and connect with this Emmaus story each time we gather in our present reality for worship of Jesus, providing us a Holy Communion with the divine presence of God.