Tranquillity, gentleness and strength

The astute among you will have noticed that I have been following the October readings in the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer, which is a valuable resource for those of us wishing to cultivate a devotional life drawing on ancient traditions.

The readings have been quotes from the influential 20th century poet and mystic Evelyn Underhill.  In one passage, she writes about what today we would call resilience:

If we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, a consideration of the tranquillity, gentleness and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life will serve us better than anything that is based on the loftiness of our religious notions, or fervour of our religious feelings….  This is the threefold imprint of the Spirit on the soul surrendered to God.

Resilience is a characteristic much-prized in mission workers, but one that is hard gained.  Much member care is focussed on supporting people through trials and tribulations so that they grow more resilient with each test and are able to grow.

Yet resilience is not acquired through Biblical knowledge or professional skills, which are often the properties which commend themselves initially to church and agency as they mobilise and send us.  Resilience is acquired through prayerfulness, time spend in the presence of God despite the demands of family, church, ministry and community.  It comes from choosing, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus when we know there is work to be done.

I discovered this resilience in my own life many years ago when I was struggling with long-term sickness, living on state benefits and finding it hard to live a ‘normal’ life.  Yet at the same time I experienced an inner joy and lightness of spirit that was in complete contrast to the circumstances surrounding me.  I concluded that what helped me was a heavenly perspective: God still loved me; Christ had still died for me; my place in heaven was secure – so what if the rest of this life is misery, sickness and squalor?

Yet many mission workers, far from experiencing such joy, are mired in what Mrs Underhill calls “the inequalities of family life, emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health, and the rising and falling of our religious temperature.”

If your experience is more like that, it’s time to stop, take a holiday or go on retreat, before your stress levels lead you into burnout.  It’s time to lay down some responsibilities and make time to sit and hold hands with God.  As a result, we don’t necessarily get on top of the material circumstances of our lives, but we can transcend them.

Missing the symphony?

So many Christians are like distracted onlookers at a concert.  They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again.  So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which their lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of God.

Evelyn Underhill, quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2, from the Northumbria Community

 

Who?

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.