If we are to be Guardians of the Gap and to have space for Dreaming Prayer, it may not be sufficient simply to make a few judicious cancellations in our diaries, though certainly resolving to manage them better could help. It might involve a searching review our life style, and prayer for the grace of discernment. But it is even deeper than that. One of the lovely Margaret Rizza songs is entitled ‘You are the centre of my life’ and so the question we shall be considering in this part of the day is quite simply, ‘Is he? Is he the centre of my life?’ That might be something for your reflection in the silences today.
If everything, absolutely everything, all that constitutes life for us were to be written on cards and piled in a heap in the middle of a table, and one by one pulled out and redistributed into smaller piles labelled ESSENTIAL; NON-ESSENTIAL; ADDICTIONS; ATTACHMENTS; COMPULSIONS; OBSESSIONS; LONGINGS; CREATIVITY; GIFTEDNESS; even SHEER WASTE – it may still leave some stuff in the middle that we are unsure about. Mostly however we will have sorted out the major elements that we feel make up life for us. Do we feel dominated in some way, perhaps trapped, if so, where? Where are we most free? where hindered? and what about the burden of inappropriate guilt that we carry? What enhances and energises life? what makes us ‘driven’ people? How do we withstand or not the people and things that cling to us and demand our attention in an energy-sapping, draining way in which there is no mutuality or enrichment? Ignatius of Loyola speaks in his prayer of ‘giving and not counting the cost’ in a kind of wild abandon, but we need to add the corollary ‘save that of knowing that we do Thy will’, in so far as we have discerned it. The giving must of course be generous but also wise and under the rule of Christ.
At this point, we need to invite the Lord to examine with us our piles of cards, to give his ‘take’ on them, to heal our priorities and guide us in any necessary redistribution of them. Lent is a good opportunity to do some of this shuffling with a new clarity, seeking to see through the eyes of God. Some things could go to the recycling bin (for with God, nothing is lost or wasted. He rejoices to recycle our brokenness and wounds for his glory); some need to be preserved on our memory sticks; some need to be highlighted in bold and some put in brackets, or smaller font according to importance.
The shuffling is not chiefly about throwing out, though there will be some of that. It is about re-ordering the many facets of life, prioritising even the essentials, allowing God to transform the compulsions and addictions so that they become plus qualities that serve his kingdom.
The shuffling will give God great joy as he gets to work on the raw materials we offer him to unburden us. But we will need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves.
Merton told the story of two Tibetan monks escaping from the enemy who were about to storm their monastery, slaughter the monks and take everything of any worth. Saddling up 7 Yaks, the two monks loaded them with everything needful for their journey and anything that was of any great worth. However, after a short distance they realised that the attackers had spotted them escaping and were chasing after them. The essentials they had packed were slowing them down and with the enemy gaining ground, one monk abandoned the yaks and hastily continued on foot till he came to a river where he was able to swim across to safety. The other monk with all seven yaks in his train and, unable to let go his possessions was overtaken by the attackers, and killed. Merton finished his address by asking, ‘How many yaks do we have in our train?’
It is not only a question of what to jettison but when. Anyone who has had to downsize a home knows how difficult it is to decide what to get rid of and what to keep - We look at things we have barely used for ages and think, ‘Maybe it would be wise to hang on to this in case it comes in useful some time’. However it is not chiefly on our material possessions that we need to be focussing today but even more on whatever possesses us inwardly. And not just to let go, but judging the right moment. It takes a long time to get to the point of wanting this kind of emptying. E.g. It is never easy to relinquish the roles which have meant a lot to us in giving us purpose and a sense of worth - hopefully helping others to reach their potential. Our insecurities sometimes seem to have a vice like grip on us. Yet deep down might we not actually be hungering for the Sacrament of Letting Go, or as Florence Allshorn wrote, the Sacrament of Nothing Withheld? Both are outward signs of much inward grace.
Edward England, who was for many years senior Religious Editor for Hodder’s, the Publishers, hugely respected with a national and international reputation, clocking up the highest sales’ figures annually of any department in Hodder’s, regularly meeting with eminent public figures of the day, (he could almost smell a good autobiography) felt he was on the cusp of great things to come, when suddenly he became convinced by an inner restlessness that God was telling him to move on – not knowing whither. It meant the loss of a very considerable salary, the loss of security, no clear plan for the future, he feared (needlessly) the loss of the esteem which had contributed to his wellbeing... and he was still only in his 50s. That took enormous courage. After a while, and in fulfilment of a dream, he opened his own publishing establishment. Smaller and less all-consuming, it left him with energy to engage in a greatly blessed ministry of preaching, speaking and publishing Christian magazines like Renewal and Healing and Wholeness. But really I think his greatest gift of himself came in his book, ‘The Addiction of a Busy Life’. It is the story of one whose success drove him on year by year to exceed the dizzy heights of the ones before ‘What happens when I reach the ceiling?’ he asked. For he was not only ‘driven’ by his own workaholism but by the attempt to meet peoples’ demands and the huge pressures put on him. I daresay many of us could identify with that.
Charles Coulson once wrote: ‘In hospital I began to consider that in trying to do all those worthy things that everybody wanted me to do, I had become the subject of a tyrannical schedule rather than God’s priorities.’
Both these men discovered that God didn’t deny them their gifts and experience but re-established his priorities. Nevertheless, it took great courage to submit to that re-ordering so that he and not their work could be restored to the centre. And the end result was that, in less prestigious ways, both became fulfilled (filled full) with grace, and were a blessing to countless people.
In our submission to God’s priorities and in the shuffling process, might it involve a radical change of direction for us as it did for Edward? Do we need to question our motives? Is our present feverish activity really necessary, or is it a form of escape, from some reality we don’t want to face? Or does it stem from our inability to say ‘No’ and how hard that can be!. Yet our consequent exhaustion, burn out even, is not exactly pleasing to God (Ignatius prayed - ‘to toil; and not to seek for rest’? NO, no, no! God provided for rest in his Law). The Kingdom of God will still come, believe it or not, even without our help!
As well as success, our cravings can be for such things as power, luxury, popularity, and especially our need to be needed (addictive helpfulness which is a fulfilling of our need rather than that of the one in trouble) is a form of disorder in our lives. We do well to honour the small gap between feeling a person’s pain and leaping into action, to displace our automatic reflexive responses by listening to the Lord, whose compassion we invite to flow through us. How would he want us to incarnate and express it? He might even be saying, ‘Do nothing’.
Some years ago I jotted down this quotation (sadly without the reference): ‘The Church’ it said ‘lacks a theology of uselessness, and acceptance of holy futility’, and it reminded me of another saying ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’.
What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’, said the poet W.H.Davies . Uselessness? futility? We don’t always sit happily with either, or rather our egos don’t.
But surely we want to be able to say (at least in our moments of deepest desire) ‘You are the centre of my life, not my ego.’
Bishop David Hallatt tells the story of taking Home Communion regularly to Lucy, who was confined to one room, so disabled was she. But every morning, when she woke, she would open her arms and say ‘Good morning Lord. What are you and I going to get up to today?’ NB the order YOU and I. Useless? Futile? Not in God’s book. He took her at her word and used her powerfully in intercessory love.
Looking at the outer rim of a web, it might seem to speak of uselessness. But is it not actually spot-welding together the whole, giving it balance and completion? So for us, wherever we are in the web, are we not all held together in Him who is the centre of our life?