A hermit I know used to say, “When you stop falling you will be in heaven, but when you stop getting up, you will be in hell.” The fact of the matter is, we all fall. The secret of spiritual growth is how long we take to get up again. St Francis of Assisi used to say that the difference between a saint and a sinner is not that the saint does not fall, but the speed with which the saint gets up again. Reflect for a moment on how many times you have failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions. It is pride that prevents us from getting up after we have failed and soon we will have forgotten all about them. Here is a bit of advice from my friend the hermit. “Try not to spend your life endlessly making resolutions that you never keep, just concentrate on one resolution that will help you keep them all.”
The theory is simple. We are all weak, so even if we do manage to keep an odd resolution here and there throughout our lives, we will never manage to keep them all, never mind conquer the sins that continually topple us. So, make just one resolution, and that is to turn and open yourself to receive ‘Love Unlimited’ as much as you are able, each day. Then your life, and the life of your family will be changed irrevocably for the better. The reason is simply this – ‘All things are possible with love that are quite impossible without it’.
So, here is the principle. Do not give up anything you like or enjoy, unless it prevents you from giving some quality space and time each day for God in prayer. There is nothing more important than trying to surcharge your own limited love with his unlimited love each day. Prayer is but the traditional word used to describe how we go about doing this. The more you come to know and experience this love then, without realising it all those things that you once thought you could never live without, simply fade away. If this can happen in human love when the love of another can totally absorb you to the exclusion of all else, how much can this happen in divine love? The quest for this love, however, can only begin when we sincerely seek and find the daily time to receive it.
I was talking to a friend of mine last week about sport, and he was saying that now middle age is on the horizon he is finding it more and more difficult to play with anything like the success he used to have. He told me he had to practise what he calls ‘energy management’. In other words, he has only a limited amount of energy these days, so he must use what little energy he has to best advantage. So, he freewheels whenever he can and uses what energy he has to maximum effect at crucial moments of the game.
It is the same with us when it comes to the spiritual life. We are all weak and only have a limited amount of energy at our disposal. So, instead of dissipating it trying to do everything and ending up doing nothing, we need to practise ‘energy management’. In other words, use what little energy we have to maximum effect. This means trying to organise our daily lives so that we have regular times of access to the most powerful energy available to us. As this supernatural energy or Love begins to surcharge our own, we will be able to do what is quite impossible without it. Jesus himself did exactly the same because he recognised that in freely choosing to enter into our weak human nature, he needed the help and strength that only his father could give. He realised that he needed to structure his own life in such a way that he could have access continually to the help and strength that he needed from his Father. That is why he regularly went to the temple and to the synagogue with his disciples, and that is why he often went alone for more prolonged personal prayer into lonely places. However, in addition to all this, he needed daily personal prayer too, as we do.
Momentum in our Spiritual Journey
It was the custom of orthodox Jews at that period to pray five times a day as Muslims do today. Jesus criticised his own contemporaries for the way they made such an exhibition of themselves at these prescribed times, ostentatiously praying in public to impress the plebs with their piety. He did not criticise them for doing what he would certainly have done himself, but for the way that they did it. When you pray, he insisted, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you”. We need to do the same if we are going to maintain any momentum in our spiritual journey.
When lifestyles and work-patterns changed in subsequent centuries, Christians no longer found it possible to stick to the prescribed times that Jesus would have used with his disciples, except in religious orders where the practice is continued to this day. That is why for laypeople the practice of morning and evening prayer began to take its place, but sadly in recent years this seems to be disappearing. It is no good saying we simply don’t have the time because it is rarely true. A recent survey for the BBC discovered that an average person watches television for over thirty hours a week. So surely, we could give up a couple of hours here and there for the only salt that will give savour to our lives and give meaning to what can so easily be meaningless without it.
It made me rethink the structures in my own life that had been looking a little wobbly at the knees of late. Time simply must be programmed into our daily lives if we are to follow Jesus’ example seriously. If he needed daily access to his father to nurture and sustain his spiritual life, how much more do we? This is the first lesson that all the saints learnt from Jesus, but we become mixed up because we read the story of their lives backwards, and so totally misunderstand the principles of the spiritual life that made them what they finally became.
We read about their unrelenting selflessness, their heroic virtue and their feats of super-human asceticism, and we wrongly believe that we can only become like them by imitating what they did. This is of course a recipe for disaster that has destroyed the youthful idealism of many a would-be saint. Saints become saints not by performing heroic virtues, but by first opening themselves as Jesus did to the only Love that will give them the power to perform heroic virtues. If we only try to copy what are the effects of love, we are doomed to failure. We must copy the saints by realising as they did how weak they were and unable to do anything by themselves. Then we will open ourselves to receive the love that made them such loving people. They were the first to learn how to practise the energy management that enabled them to manage their lives better than anyone else.
We too must make quality space and time in our daily lives to tap into the supreme energy which is Love Unlimited. As this Love begins to penetrate and surcharge our own weak human love, we will be able to perform the sort of heroic virtues that should characterise everyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ. Then, animated by the same love that animated him, the world will come to see that Jesus is not dead but alive in us and in all who choose to receive him, and so seeing, they will come to believe.
Instead of making long lists of resolutions then, that we will never have the energy to keep anyway, why not just make one that will eventually enable us to keep them all.