I like getting things done, and helping others get things done. But over several years God has been recalibrating me, teaching me that a healthy rhythm of life in God includes both times of retreat as well as times of getting things done. (You can read here about what I learned from Aidan, an earlier Christian leader from 635AD.)
Part of that new rhythm is that Ruth (my wife) and I aim to take a 2-day retreat every term. Recently I was dipping into an old book I found in the retreat centre library, written by another earlier Christian leader, a French monk. In The Soul of the Apostolate I found a rich description of the quality of 'interior life' (the hidden God-life we can enjoy as Christians) necessary for those involved in 'the Apostolate' (that is, God's work in the world - which Ephesians 4:1-16 tells us we all get to play our part in).
As we go into a new season as OCC, I'm encouraging myself to find rhythms of rest and activity, of unhurried prayer as well as loving action. So maybe these notes from my journal will help others of you! For practical pointers about spiritual habits of personal worship, listening, confession, 'Examen', discerning, and asking for the Holy Spirit's help, read this earlier blog.
A bit like meeting a friend
As an analogy, I think about how spending time with God is a bit like meeting a good friend. When I meet a long-term, trusted friend I enjoy simply getting to be together. We feel safe, and understood, and heard. We get to speak honestly, and let off steam about challenges we're facing. We help each other make sense of life and our differing challenges. We encourage each other, and we come away somewhat restored. That is all an expression of our love for each other.
So too can be my times with God.
Six dynamics of my meeting with God
Let me offer you my rewording of the six points made in The Soul of the Apostolate. Ask yourself, which of these dynamics are a reality in your relationship with God?
1. My times with God are for rest
After a busy season of ministry, "the apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”" (Mark 6:30-31).
One Christian pastor-psychologist notes "the point of solitude and silence is to do nothing and don’t try to make anything happen…. you’re learning to stop doing, stop producing, stop pleasing people, stop entertaining yourself, stop obsessing — stop doing anything except to simply be your naked self before God and be found by him."
This is a vital antidote to what Microsoft researcher Linda Stone calls "the continuous partial attention", which is coded into modern life and our addiction to our smartphones.
Canon J John puts it even more simply: "Almost everything will work better if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
2. My times with God are re-centring
When I meet my good friend, our interaction reminds me that they love me, they are for me, and they care for me. When I take time 'unplugged from the world' with God it can remind me that he loves me, he is for me, and he cares for me - that "he will take delight in [me] with gladness. With his love, he will calm all [my] fears. He will rejoice over [me] with joyful songs” (Zephaniah 3:17).
Or in New Testament language, that "he chose [me] in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined [me] for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given [me] in the One he loves" (Ephesians 2:4-6).
That God is for me is a vital foundation for my relationship with him.
3. My times with God allow me to be strengthened
The Bible talks of us being refreshed, fed, our thirst quenched, our strength gained - all different descriptions for the same reality. "They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength" (Isaiah 40). "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 6). "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink" (John 7).
Time with God is vital if we are each to sustain lives as 'missionaries' in his world. In the language of 'boundless renewal', our strength comes from our relationship with God.
4. My times with God are for defence
As we see from the description of spiritual armour in Ephesians 6, life is a spiritual battle: a battle for hearts and minds, including my own. Much of the battle is internal: guarding my attitudes, so that I love my neighbour as Jesus would.
The author of The Soul of the Apostolate gives an analogy: "While the active worker who has no interior spirit is unaware of the dangers arising from his work, and thus resembles an unarmed traveller passing through a forest infested with brigands, the genuine apostle, for his part, dreads them and each day he takes precautions against them by a serious examination of conscience which reveals to him his weak points."
5. My times with God are for purifying
Leading on from the previous point, awareness of my 'weak points' leads me to ask, with the Psalm-writer, "Create in me a pure heart, O God (Psalm 51)."
The Soul of the Apostolate again: "[The person] has no trouble subordinating all his projects and hopes to the unfathomable designs of a God who often uses failure even better than success to bring about the good of souls. Consequently this soul will remain in a state of holy indifference with respect to success or failure."
This idea of 'holy indifference' means that I will pray and talk with God until I am genuinely submitted to his will, personally 'indifferent' whatever he asks of me.
Will I stop playing that role that has meant so much to me (and perhaps from which I have derived some status or enjoyment), because that is what God is asking of me? Will I do that thing he's asking, even though it will be at my personal cost?
6. My times with God are for discerning
Finally (and these 6 points are, of course, all overlapping somewhat) when we spend unhurried time with God we learn to discern true success.
Sometimes apparent failure (with its associated adverse impact on my ego) is God's route to success. The great classic example is the Cross, which seemed to the disciples like a dreadful failure of the Messianic movement, but God intended it for greater and dramatic good. In the prophetic words of Joseph, millennia before Jesus, "You intended harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
Will I allow myself to see situations as God sees them? When things don't work out as I want, my times with God can allow me to see how he sees.