Intimacy and EternityThe Pace of Life
Part One, Chapter Two
All our life is like a day of celebration for us;
we are convinced, in fact, that God is always everywhere.
We work while singing,
we sail while reciting hymns,
we accomplish all other occupations of life while praying.
(Clement of Alexandria)
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
The Pace of Life
AS WE SET OFF ON OUR WALK in the Lake District beside the river, we were aware of a deep desire within us to draw closer to the Lord. Within minutes of putting on our walking boots and striding into the woods that bordered the river we felt our spirits lifting. It was a refreshing change from the pressures of the past few months. I little realized that it was also about to become a way of life for us.
The Lord invites His people to walk by the River of Delights – but many of us find that busyness makes life feel more like a Torrent of Turbulence! As we return from a busy day, swallow a hasty meal and then head off for yet another engagement, what opportunity do we have to ponder, let alone to implement the insights we have gleaned from earlier sermons, tapes and books? It is hardly surprising that many of us become spiritually numb, going through the motions outwardly, but with all too little heart conviction. Scripture certainly encourages us to meet together, but we dare not measure our spiritual well-being by the number of meetings we attend or lead.
If we are to experience more of the presence of the Lord, we must pay considerable attention to the pace at which we lead our lives. So many of us suffer from the ravages of too much outward stress that is offset by too little physical exercise for the body, and insufficient spiritual nourishment for our inmost being. Even though we may be able to keep our professional mask more or less in place, our inmost being may be yearning for the renewing touch that comes from spending time with our Heavenly Father. We are wise if we heed this cry of the heart because we burn out inwardly faster than we do outwardly.
Aspire to God with short but frequent outpourings of the heart;
admire His bounty;
invoke His aid;
cast yourself in spirit at the foot of His cross;
adore His goodness . . .
give Him your whole soul a thousand times in the day.
(Francis de Sales)1
As world events accelerate headlong into unexpected scenarios, we are left catching our breath at the speed at which change is sweeping the globe. New and often unstable nation-states have appeared almost overnight on the political map, even as a powerful move of God’s Spirit has brought entirely new dimensions of spiritual freedom to many parts of the Church.
Through all the change and shaking, the desire of the Lord remains constant: for an intimacy with His people that develops through a lifetime of seeking Him. Romance cannot thrive on occasional contact. The Lord wants to renew a sense of adventure in our walk with Him. The hand of the Lover is poised on the latch of our hearts, and He bids us come forth and follow Him.2 Dare we refuse His gracious advances? If we remain too engrossed in our own pursuits – not to mention our comforts – our love weakens and His heart saddens.
Because Christians are usually amongst the most willing of all people to serve, we may experience particular difficulty in adjusting the pace of our lives. Yet if we rush to action stations to meet every need that comes our way, we may end up scrimping on our times with the Lord and with our families. Above all, we must seek to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading.
If too many church activities can bring their own strains, the sheer amount of television most of us watch can also stunt our spirits and hinder our attempts to draw closer to the Lord. ‘TV or not TV’: that will often be the question we must ask ourselves! Why is it that so many Christians flop for hours at a time in front of the box without checking whether God is happy for them to watch that particular programme? How much richer would it be if they took time to reflect and even to pray about the things they have just watched and heard?
I am concerned, too, for the pace of life our leaders and politicians are expected to adopt. The schemes they devise have such far-reaching effects on people’s lives – but who will show these absurdly busy people how to set time apart to weigh and ponder the different options that lie before them?
The French have coined a phrase that epitomizes the soul-deadening nature of so much of modern commuter life: ‘Metro, boulot, dodo’. It means you take the Tube to work, you do your nine hours at work and then you make your way to bed.
Given that most of us have to earn our living within this far from ideal framework, we urgently need to find ways to restore romance and adventure in our walk with the Lord.
The Sabbath Day Principle
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.
In Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 we find repeated exhortations to enter God’s Sabbath rest. These verses refer less to dutiful Sabbath observance than to that quality of rest from our labours which enables our weary bodies to be refreshed and our souls to be recharged.
A famous biologist once commented, ‘It is necessary to be slightly under-employed if we are to do anything significant.’ Unstructured time (that is, free of demanding schedules) can help us develop an eternal perspective on life – but only if we approach them in the right spirit.
When the Lord ordained the Sabbath as a day of rest He was modelling a pattern for man’s well-being. During the Second World War, many schemes were tried to discover which pattern would best aid the war effort. The results were conclusive: six days on and one off proved the most effective!
Although Sabbath-day observance as such is less important today than it was under the old dispensation, the principle remains true – as do the consequences of ignoring it! Just as the tithe belongs to God by right (our offerings beginning above and beyond this point) perhaps it would be helpful to view the institution of the Sabbath – that is one day off a week – as God’s minimum requirement.
If busyness reduces our relationship for a season to little more than telling God that we love Him, and calling on Him for help, there need be no cause for concern. ‘Provided the intention remains firm,’ wrote Teresa of Avila, ‘my God is not in the least meticulous . . . In drawing up our reckoning, he is not in the least exacting, but generous.’3
Time and again the Lord condenses much wisdom and direction into a hasty reading of Living Light, The Word for Today or our other Bible notes. The danger comes when unusual times of pressure become the norm, and we reduce our diet to suit our hectic lifestyle. Just as there is a world of difference between fast food and gourmet fare, so we will need to adjust the pace of our life to avoid living exclusively on a diet of spiritual snacks.
The Burning Desire
The access to Heaven is through desire . . .
The path to Heaven is measured by desire and not by miles.
(The Cloud of Unknowing)
Beyond good intentions, to grow in intimacy with the Lord we need a strong desire. In post-Freudian thought, ‘desire’ is usually considered to be unfulfillable. It witnesses to the absence of all absolutes – especially God! But the Lord has placed this longing for intimacy deep within us not to tantalize us but to reassure us that the presence of God is the proper end and fulfilment of desire.
Augustine considered there to be no greater sin than indifference, while Frederick Faber described the lack of desire as ‘the ill of all ills’. Desire enables us to overcome all manner of daunting circumstances, first to experience, and then to preserve, intimacy with God.
I recently came across a biography of a woman who had been bedridden from childhood, and blind and deaf for the greater part of her life. Faced with almost endless time stretching ahead of her, Jane Hess Marchant fought enormous battles against self pity. As she wrote to a friend, ‘It isn’t an easy foe to overcome, even when we know the remedy.’ Jane bore her disabilities bravely and wrote poems that were treasured right across America. Something of her resilient attitude is captured in this poem, The Sacrifice of Praise:
If we would offer praise to God continually,
Our hearts must sacrifice some things that seem to be peculiarly dear;
The pleasures of complaining when little things go wrong and little hurts are paining;
The joy of feeling abused, and envious of our neighbours,
And sorry for ourselves and our unrequited labours;
The pride of pointing out the small defects that mar our satisfactions,
to prove how skilled in taste we are –
All this the heart intent on offering praise forgoes;
And sacrificing, finds all freedom and repose.
And yet by some perverse and curious mistake
It seems a sacrifice our hearts are loath to make.
Jane found that it was praise alone which kept the power of Satan’s negativity at bay, and which enabled the breadth of her vision to scan the world from the narrow confines of her bedroom. As her fame increased, however, so too did the interruptions. She found herself desperately short of time for what she called ‘slow interior living.’
Ponder some more of her words:
The dream within the heart,
the shape within the stone,
Is visualized apart,
is realized alone.
No one who would express essentials,
can exclude the arduous inwardness,
the searching solitude.4
The temptation is to assume that we will never have time to enjoy the richer fare this reference to ‘arduous inwardness’ is clearly calling us to. Clergymen point to their impossibly busy round of activities; parents wrestle with never-ending piles of clearing up – and everybody knows the stresses that affect the workplace.
If excuses are the order of the day, I suspect that even the hermit in his cave might find the lack of central heating – or the presence of too many bats – reason enough to stop seeking God. It sounds so much more plausible to say ‘Circumstances prevent me,’ rather than ‘The cost is too great.’
What will really hinder us from seeking the Lord, even more than a lively child or a demanding job, is the lack of desire. When we are really eager to do something, it is amazing how much effort and ingenuity we can devote to making it possible.
Not only do most people struggle to find time for the ‘searching solitude’ Jane Hess Marchant was describing: they may also be surprised how hard it can be to cope with if they do succeed in finding it! It takes maturity to handle unstructured time, whether it comes our way as a consequence of redundancy, illness, retirement or the Lord’s specific leading. But God will not share His richest blessings with those who are harbouring hopes of finding something better in their worldly pursuits. May the Lord renew a burning desire in us to honour Him in all that we do. As Faber wrote,
None honours God like the thirst of desire . . .
Then pray for desire, for love’s wistfullest yearning,
For the beautiful pining of holy desire;
Yes, pray for a soul that is ceaselessly burning
With the soft fragrant flames of this
Thrice happy fire. For the heart only dwells,
Truly dwells with its treasure,
And they who love God cannot love Him by measure,
For their love is but hunger to love Him still better.
For the lack of desire is the ill of all ills;
God loves to be longed for, He loves to be sought,
For He sought us Himself with such longing and love:
He died for desire of us, marvellous thought!
And He yearns for us now to be with Him above.5
Making the most of our time
Prayers that first recall and then transform circumstances require a settled spirit and a firm purpose. Whatever our personal circumstances, we will need to make time to wait on the Lord. The nature of our diaries (to say nothing of the subtle distractions the enemy sends our way) mean that we will almost never be able to find enough time to be with Him.If this means choosing not to go somewhere interesting of an evening in order to spend more time in God’s presence, then so be it. We are almost bound to disappoint more actively minded friends from time to time by our choices, but true devotion, like true creativity, cannot be rushed.
If our desire is strong enough (and most of us have to struggle to overcome the fear that we are not the sort of person that God would reveal Himself to) there are usually practical steps that we can take. Mothers can arrange baby swaps, and carers can ask friends to look after aged relatives for a few hours so that they can spend some time with the Lord.
The wife of a busy executive, who used to enjoy more time than her husband did to be with the Lord, shared the spiritual ‘manna’ she had gleaned during the day with him at the end of the day. This was not ‘spoon-feeding’ him so much as taking advantage of her privileged position to bless and strengthen her husband. Neither was it an exclusive service for his benefit. She frequently received helpful insights for the many other people she prayed for.
Suddenly their roles reversed. Some years before her husband lost his high-powered job, she had started a business, which in time became a successful enterprise. It is delightful to see her husband serving her today as humbly as she once served him.
For us personally, the challenge to make the most of every opportunity6 became a much more pressing issue when our children were born. Before their arrival, friends warned us with that peculiar negativity that is so characteristic of the English, ‘You wait till you have children! That’ll be the end of your long quiet times.’ Truth to tell, the arrival of our first child did little to hinder our devotions. We were still able to enjoy our morning quiet time because Ruth slept well, and we were able to backpack her while we went for walks. It was a different story when Timothy arrived. The lightest of sleepers in the morning (and the latest at night) we endured four years of our son waking up the moment we tiptoed out of bed.
Overnight, our devotional pattern was shattered. Now, instead of hopping effortlessly into a car to go in search of a family walk, it really would have been a great deal easier not to go through the paraphernalia of sorting out a carload of children and a lively dog. Yet the blessings that came from doing so repaid our efforts many times over.
We often used to spend some time together walking as a family, before one or other of us would stride on ahead (or linger behind) to drink in the presence of the Lord while the other stayed with the children. Then we reversed the roles, thus enabling us both to enjoy some time alone with God, whilst also having family time together. In similar ways we managed to turn holidays into mini-retreats. This is important because we have found that God often speaks to us while we are on holiday, perhaps because we are free from our normal responsibilities, and therefore relaxed enough to be able to enjoy richer times of reflection with Him.
Most of us can probably do more than we are currently doing to combine leisure times with devotional interludes without rocking the family boat too much. We should certainly be careful to choose holidays that will do us good spiritually as well as physically.
Bringing Intimacy into our Daily Lives
It is an old custom of the servants of God to have some little prayers, and to be frequently darting them up to Heaven during the day, lifting their minds to God out of the mire of this world. He who adopts this plan will get great fruits with little pains.
As a rule, the busier our lives and ministries, the greater our need to compensate for the stresses and strains. Whatever framework we base our devotional life around should cater both for the objective pressures of our lifestyle and the subjective way in which we respond to stress. Our strengths are as varied as our giftings, and we need to heed our limitations. The parents of very young children, for example, should probably not be expected to shoulder the same burdens they did before they had children – and will again be able to do when the most intensive years of child-rearing lie behind them.
There is a rhythm and a flow in the life of the spirit within us which becomes increasingly familiar to those who take the trouble to recognize the patterns of the Lord’s leading. Throughout the long monastic tradition, monks and nuns have realized the wisdom of dividing the day into various sectors, for work, rest and prayer. These well thought-out divisions were designed to bring balance into their lifestyle.
Perhaps we should add to the monastic division of work, rest and prayer the equally important dimension of play. God wants us to enjoy life, and to live it to the full. Times of genuine pleasure and relaxation are a wonderful defence against the work of Satan. The Lord reminded me one day, ‘When I created children with an instinct to play, I put something of Myself in them. If you do not play, My child, you are off balance!’ Half an hour later we were enjoying each other’s company picking blackberries in the autumn sunshine, and feeling much the better for it. To quote again the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing:
Anyone who has the light to understand what I mean, and the grace to follow it will experience the delight of the Lord’s playfulness. For like a father frolicking with his children, He will hug and kiss one who comes to him with a child’s heart.
Wherever did we get the idea from that God wants to stop us having fun? He wouldn’t have created the elephant’s trunk and the giraffe’s neck or made new born animals leap and skip unless they were in some way reflecting His own sense of joy and good humour. Let us fear only to make His heart sad by our doubt and unbelief.
The pressures of life are so great today, however, that many people turn for help to a wide range of relaxation therapies.
We must choose our means of unwinding carefully. All too many practitioners who promote relaxation techniques have adopted New Age methods and beliefs. Hidden within these lies the ultimate deception of all: that the self is divine. To embrace this view of life is as absurd as the medieval belief that the sun revolves around the earth, but it is becoming alarmingly widespread. Exercise is useful, though, because it reduces stress levels which have become clogged with too much adrenaline and harmful cortisol. Walking is still in many ways the best, and most readily available means of exercise that we can take. So why not combine necessary times of recreation with opportunities to meet the Lord?
Stress sabotages the instinct to play. We live in a society that is so steeped in ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ that most of us feel uneasy if we are not doing as much as we feel we are capable of – and preferably being seen to be doing it! If our mind has become stuck along lines of performing and achieving, I have a strong suspicion that we may never be able to do or achieve enough to satisfy our inner expectations.
Our church programmes unwittingly perpetuate this way of thinking. We push prospective pastors through academically oriented courses, paying far too little attention to developing the kind of character that will fare well on the spiritual front-line. Performance-instructed pastors in turn risk becoming demanding leaders, more obsessed with numbers present than with the overall quality of spiritual life. How can we escape the conclusion that we serve the Lord best by being frenetically busy? Meetings can be vitally important – but our standing with the Lord derives more from how much we love and are obeying Him than from what we are doing for Him.
Yes, there is a world which desperately needs to hear of His salvation, but there is a beauty about someone who has paid the price to be holy, which in turn helps others to draw closer to the Lord. This is not an easy balance to achieve. We must be willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary in our lifestyle to bring about a better spiritual balance.
Given the time constraints that we face, most of us will readily identify with the sentiments expressed in this meditation by Michel Quoist.
Lord, here we are . . . Caught between the infinity of our desires
and the limitation of our means,
and pulled there,
confused and exhausted.
So Lord, here we are,
and finally ready to listen.
You’ve seen how dissatisfaction has made us suffer.
You’ve seen how fear has led us astray in choosing our commitments.
You’ve seen how we were afraid of doing too little.
And You’ve seen the cross imposed by our limited means.
Lord, make us strong enough to do what we should do calmly,
without wanting to do too much,
without wanting to do it all ourselves.
In other words, Lord,
make us humble in our wish and Your will to serve.
Help us above all to find You in our commitments.
For You are the unity of our actions;
You are the single love in all our loves,
in all our efforts.
You are the wellspring,
and all things are drawn to You.
So we have come before You, Lord,
to rest and gather strength.8
Lord and Father of my soul, I ask that I may live my life at such a pace that my faith may be both more comprehensive and more fulfilling. Grant me the ability to structure my days in such a way that there is time to meet with You, and to dedicate the things I do to You.
Thank You that I am here this day on assignment for You. You know what I will do, and whom I will meet. I pray that You will give me the grace, the wisdom, and the compassion and the patience to help me bring Your presence to these people and places.
Keep me from acting impulsively or from under the influence of false compulsions. Balance the pace of my life so that I am neither dilatory nor idle but truly in step with your Spirit.
I give You the matters which are troubling me, especially . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I ask you to deal with these worries and to turn them into moments of encounter and breakthrough.
I dedicate my times of travelling to You. May Your presence and Your protection go with me, and make them fresh opportunities for seeking You.
I pray for my friends and family today. Show me how You would have me pray for them, and help me to meet their special needs.
I give you the items of news which have caught my attention, especially . . . . . . and . . . . . . . .
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.). All quotations from this book are used by arrangement with the publishers in New York.
2. Song of Songs 5:2-4.
3. The Way of Perfection (Sheed and Ward).
4. Sarah Jorunn Oftedal, A Window on Eternity: The Life and Poetry of Jane Hess Marchant (Abingdon Press). Used with grateful acknowledgement.
5. Frederick Faber, Desire for God. source unknown.
6. Ephesians 5:16.
7. Philip Neri, op. cit.
8. Michel Quoist, source unknown.