by Scott Owings
January – April, 2006
You are called to unity. That is the good news of the Incarnation. The Word becomes flesh, and thus a new place is made where all of you and all of God can dwell. When you have found that unity, you will be truly free.
Henri Nouwen’s personal reflections address a facet of unity that believers in the West are prone to overlook; that is union with God. I am not advocating an eastern (or western) idolatry that places self as god or equal to him. I am suggesting that unity with God is a spiritual birthright gift—tangible and ever-present though often a reality to which we must be awakened.
This wake-up call comes not just from the likes of twentieth century writers such as Nouwen and Thomas Merton but is also an overlooked appeal from Scripture (Examples are Peter, Paul, and John. Mary hints at this in her Magnificat in Luke 2:46-55).
“… so that you become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
In the opening verses of Second Peter, we are encouraged to live a virtuous, disciplined life as we partake of the divine nature. After all, “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” This is simply breathtaking: our nature has been united with God’s. And far from making us proud or self-absorbed, this divine nature—this union with God — is the basis of much needed humility of spirit, without which unity with others and self is impossible.
The problem, Nouwen suggests, is “we experience an inner duality.” Too often we live divided lives — cut off from God and our true self. This happens, Thomas Merton points out, “when our minds and wills are involved in the desire of illusory values. In this state we can know neither God nor creatures as they are. We do not rest in God and we do not find true joy in his creation.” 
“… since there is fellowship in the Spirit … make my joy complete—be of the same mind, having the same love, being of the full accord, and of one mind” (Philippians 2:3).
In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians he too speaks of the reality of unity with God. Sure, the Apostle’s immediate concern was for the Philippian church to be unified—to be of one mind, sharing the love of the Lord. But the basis of such an appeal must not be ignored; otherwise we miss the basis of the entire letter! That is, “since there is unity in the Spirit” followers of Christ have the means and the motivation to be united with each other! 
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
In Jesus of Nazareth, we see union with God in its ideal form. But as Nouwen suggests in the quote at the beginning of this article, the good news of the Incarnation is not only that God took on our humanity but that “a new place is made where all of God and all of you can dwell.” The problem of human nature, and with post Enlightened Christians in particular, is that we live divided lives, separated from God and the deepest desires of our heart (which is union with him), choosing instead to believe the deceptive lies of the world, the flesh, and the evil one.
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21b).
Jesus’ desire for unity in John 17 is arguably the most profound prayer found in Scripture and one that should lead us to silence. Of course who can miss Jesus’ petition that his followers — both then and now — be united? However, it is his prayer for our union with God that should leave us speechless, humbled by how far we have drifted from this plea for unity. Yet, this prayer, like no other, stirs up magnanimous hope for it points to the reality that deep within the heart of God and Jesus, is their ongoing desire to be united with us!
So, since God’s ongoing desire is to be united with us and since union with God is a gift made possible through the Incarnation of Jesus, how are we to respond to such a grace?
In a word, through silence!
Of course we live in a world full of noise where being still and silent is seemingly impossible. Most Americans avoid silence at all costs as is reflected in our living rooms, cars, and, saddest of all, in personal prayer and corporate worship. Perhaps this is due to the cultural belief that ‘success’ is about results and to be still and silent would be a waste of time.
More likely, we avoid silence because we are afraid of what fears, disappointments, or secret memories or dreams might emerge if we just sat and ‘did nothing.’ And certainly these thoughts and images do rise to our consciousness in silence. But like debris floating down a river our hidden heartache, sin, anxieties will flow by if we will remain quiet and attentive, listening to the still, small Breath that is within.
Since we have such built in speakers all around us, we need practical ways to turn them off and listen. Here are a few ‘silent-prayer’ activities that can heighten our awareness of union with God:
- Five minute ‘sit’. Before and/or after reading Scripture I often silently contemplate a Scripture. For instance, try being quiet before reading all of John 17. Then sit quietly and contemplate the chapter after you read it. Do this for about five minutes before and after you read. In this exercise, we are consciously stilling our soul so that we might hear the Word of God. If the silence is too distracting or “noisy” some have found it helpful to silently repeat one of the many names for God. Another option might be to quietly focus on a word or phrase that seems especially meaningful from the day’s reading and to sit quietly with it.
- Silent walk. Whether during the day or at night, by oneself or with a friend a walk without words can be a wonderful time of centering oneself on God and his presence in us and in his creation. As a suggestion, if you walk with someone else you could agree to walk for the first thirty minutes in complete silence, followed by a time of sharing what each ‘heard.’
- Fasting from noise—no radio, TV, movies. What would it be like to take one day off from external noise for the sake of listening to God?
- Sharing silence in community. Many have found sharing silence easier and enhanced by being quiet with others. What if, worship leaders, preachers, teachers, small group leaders, and pray-ers prefaced, or ended, their speech with the phrase, “Let’s share some silence together with each other and God.”
- Weekend retreat to a monastery. For those who might want to explore being silent for an extended time (or just find it impossible to be still at home or church) a trip to a monastery can provide a dedicated place for silence, meditation, and prayer.And if we do these exercises, over time, something wonderful begins to happen: we become aware of how real and near and united we are to God through Christ!
I’d like to hear about your experiences. E-mail me at [firstname.lastname@example.org].
 Henri Nouwen, “The Inner Voice of Love,” p.14.
 Thomas Merton, “The Ascent of Truth,” p.57.
 Unfortunately, Philippians 2.3 is erroneously translated in most English versions, rendering this verse into a conditional statement: “if there is fellowship in the Spirit…” This “if’ misses the weight of the appeal entirely, for unity with God through the Spirit is a given for Paul. Textually, and theologically, Paul is stating what is a given: there is unity in the Spirit.
Scott is Spiritual Formation Minister at Otter Creek Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Scott has recently published an e-book on his experience in the mystical city of Prague.
If you enjoyed this article, you would probably appreciate Reaching Out, which Scott wrote for the Spiritual Formation issue of New Wineskins.