Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Riding on the Glory Train

We were young then, I'm not speaking metaphorically; it was forty years ago at the very beginning of my ministry. It was the first major trip that my wife Diana and I took together; “Europe on Five and Ten Dollars a Day,” two Eurail passes, a sense of adventure, and a lot of faith. We made no reservations, simply boarded the train and when it stopped at a place we wished to visit we took out our guide book, or consulted whatever government tourist office there was, and trusted to the blessings of God. The result was joy and the beginning of memories that would last a lifetime.

In one glorious month we boarded the Paris – Rome Express, then from Rome to Venice, Zürich, Heidelberg, down the Rhine to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Belgium, Luxembourg, then over the English Channel to London. As the Glory Train rolled on one particular memory stands out. We were sitting in a dining card on the overnight train from Venice to Zürich, crisp linen table clothes and precisely folded linen napkins, heavy silver service, curried chicken, and outside the window the grand panorama of the Alps passed in magnificent parade with a majesty and overwhelming beauty that we had never seen before. We were riding on the Glory Train.

In a way the Glory Train is a metaphor for the unfolding of Christian Life with arduous climbs up spiritual alps, dizzying descents in valleys, and a multitude of stops along the way, some wonderful, some not, all different, all just part of the journey. Some of the stops are grey and dingy, even nasty, others musty, dusty places we never want to visit again. Riding the Glory Train takes a combination of faith and an understanding of the nature of Christian life.

The distinguishing characteristic of riding on the Glory Train is that we actually believed that you could do Europe on five and ten dollars a day. Retrospectively we were right. Forty years of Christian living, uphill, downhill, through dank and dangerous places, sometimes cresting over lofty mountains, then gaining speed on the descent to some valley floor, marks the rhythm of Christian living. I am not naive. Some of those places were very painful, one or two are tender to the touch even to this day.

For each of those experiences there is a reason. Sitting on a spiritual hotplate, at the very least, makes own loath to sit back down there again. There is a rhythm to Christian life. One can't live on the mountain tops, and one shouldn't get trapped into living in the valleys. Christian life is not static but always in motion, it is a journey with a destination, and it has hills, valleys, trestle bridges, tunnels, and passages across level plains, but always it is a forward motion. In Christian Life one lives on the Glory Train, not on any of the various places of interest or dread that flash by the windows. All the stops along the way are temporary, every last one of them, and only one thing is eternal.

Over all I have learnt that I am loved. I have learnt that the Engineer on this mountain railroad of life is worthy of my trust. He is my Redeemer, Christ Jesus my Kinsman-Redeemer. That title is not just smoke from some infernal steam engine spewing out grit and ashes. I have learnt that I am loved and that He redeems the years the locusts have eaten. He redeems the past. Let me be very specific. He redeems my past, my very own past, and I have learnt that my life is a salvation history, an ongoing work of God the Father, through Jesus the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I have discovered that this is no empty joke. I have discovered that I am Riding on the Glory Train, and this train has a destination. This train is bound for heaven.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Hear the Grating of an Old Saw

I hear the grating of an old saw, back and forth, back and forth, tearing at my soul. Old guilts, old stupidities, old moments of awkward stubbornness, things long ago confessed and forgiven. Faintly I discern the scent of brimstone. There is a fell hand upon the saw, but once discerned, with a mocking leer upon his face he drops the saw and withdraws a pace or two awaiting another day, another unguarded moment when he can grasp the old saw of accusation and work away, back and forth, back and forth.

This is a common experience of many Christians. The old guilts and stupidities are seldom the most dramatic requiring soul shaking repentance, but rather the lesser ones that reflect inner weakness, inner vulnerabilities to temptation, words spoken lovelessly, harsh actions, moments of hurt pride and anger, and a myriad of drives springing from the flesh that we neither desire nor intend to fulfill.

In a flash of insight we see ourselves as a moral puddle and like the publican we beat our breasts and cry, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” It is there, at that very spot, that we have something surprising to do. So you see yourself? Well and good! Now in this very moment extend acceptance to yourself, not as you ought to be, but as you are in the reality of this moment. Why? Certainly not because you are such a fine fellow or such a lovely woman. No! You know with painful clarity that you are not. No! Accept yourself because God the Father accepts you for the sake of Jesus His Son. You see yourself and you are seen by the One who loves you most and accepts you. You are accepted! You are accepted just as you are without reservation. Transformation comes later, but in this precious moment you are accepted. Who are you to refuse to accept one whom God Himself has accepted even if that one is you yourself.

This crux is what the ancients would call a pons asinorum, a bridge of asses; a bridge we mindless donkeys fear to cross, but once crossed, the crossing comes with blessed relief. In crossing over, a light dawns. So that is what I am. So what! I see myself; but I also see myself as forgiven and accepted. The grinding back and forth of the old saw of accusation and guilt stops with a sudden jerk and the enemy withdraws with the gnashing of teeth. Rejoice! You are accepted.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Spiritual Doldrums

Sailors in the tropics are familiar with the doldrums, an equatorial zone where the winds fail and the sails hang listless. The doldrums are dangerous. When the wind fails the ship wallows helplessly in the sea, forward motion is impossible, drinking water becomes dangerously low and the stores of food begin to vanish. At the worst the end could be death, at the best a freshet of wind springs up and deliverance is at hand. The spiritual equivalent is described by Teresa of Avila. She says, “At other times I find myself unable to formulate a single definite thought, other than quite a fleeting one, about God, or about anything good, or to engage in prayer, even when I am alone; yet none the less I feel that I know Him.” (The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Image Books, Ch. XXX). Even in the doldrums she holds fast her faith in her Lord.

It is comforting to know that even an experienced saint like Teresa who has received so many spiritual favours and visions, still goes through times of spiritual aridity and confusion. Part of the genius of Teresa is her incessant introspection, an introspection which at its best leads her into deeper knowledge both of God and herself, but at other times can drive her into deep depression. What tends to happen in the midst of the spiritual doldrums is that those with less experience and insight than Teresa drift mindlessly without the wind of the Spirit. This may go on not just for a few hours, or for few days, but for endless weeks. The doldrums make nonsense of the naïve Pelagian view that we can lift ourselves to God by our own spiritual bootstraps. The first thing we need to pray for in the doldrums is the gift and grace of introspection in the presence of the Lord. In the doldrums only the wind of grace will fill the sails.

What is not immediately apparent is that during all of this Teresa is living not in isolation, but in community. In community she is called to exercise leadership and authority; but also in the extended community of the Church she herself accepts, even seeks out the leadership and authority of her confessors, who are not always constructive in their criticism of her, yet still she persists. With humility she submits her habitual introspection both to her confessors and to the doctrine of the Church knowing that unchecked introspection can be dangerous.

For us the development of the practice of introspection can take several avenues. One of the basic methods is working out our feelings in a spiritual journal. Addressing each entry to the Lord is one way of keeping ourselves not only honest, but also fair with ourselves as well as with others. Rereading journal entries after the times of distress cool down can be very instructive. God had once observed that it is not good for man to be alone. Isolation is spiritually dangerous. Find someone to share with, if not a confessor or spiritual guide, then some other faithful Christian, or even a small group that can walk the journey with you.

Teresa is also sustained by the daily cycle of prayer within the community. The rhythm of the Hours of Prayer, the frequency of Eucharist, her persistent habit of recollection, thatr running dialogue with her Lord, weave together a background that stabilizes and balances her life of prayer, and in the doldrums keep her feet in motion even when her mind is running on disconnect. She knows from long experience that it is necessary to hold one's soul aloft to God that He may pour His blessing upon it. When you are in the spiritual doldrums tend to the basics and work on the discipline of praying one daily office a day.

It is significant that Teresa does not solely lay the blame for the doldrums on herself, or even on some vague and nebulous outside circumstances but clearly and specifically identifies the source for the doldrums as a function of spiritual warfare. Learn to detect the scent of brimstone. There is a deceiver who seeks to steal our joy and lead us away from our security in Christ Jesus. One of the enemy's most successful gambits in our modern age is the inculcation of a subtle scepticism that denies the reality of his presence. When that fails, he goes to the other extreme and attempts to instil fear, but greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world. In Teresa's experience when the enemy is seen and countered by prayer or by a simple sacramental act like making the sign of the cross, the enemy flees to await a more opportune time.

There is another dimension to the spiritual doldrums, but one that is unlike the doldrums feared by those who sail the southern seas. Spiritual doldrums, while they must be met and dealt with are also part of the normal rhythm of spiritual life. Spiritual life has its ups and downs and the rhythm is not to be feared, but understood. While is important to deal with the doldrums, sometimes we take ourselves to seriously. When the wind lags in the sails sometimes the solution is to pick up a good book, listen to some uplifting music, or fill your mind with visions of beauty, then take time to do one of the daily offices and thank God for all his good gifts.