The second half

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

The book of Job concludes with the hopeful message that ‘the second half of his life was more fruitful than the first’. Now that I am fifty-something, I am definitely in the second half! Recently I have become aware that in respect to the things of the spirit life experience is a key to understanding. The other week I opened up Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love for the umpteenth time and to my amazement I found that I understood what she was writing. It was as if she was speaking to me directly. This did not happen thirty years ago when I was an ordinand! It was measure of how much I had changed. But life does that to one.

As a student of history, I was extremely annoyed by R.W. Southern’s remark that ‘no one would ever write good history until he had suffered a personal crisis’. Likewise I bridled when I was told, ‘You will have to be well over forty before you can have a fruitful ministry in spiritual direction.’ But I now see that they were both right.

Julian of Norwich was thirty-one when she received her ‘shewings’ but it took her another thirty years of living and praying before she ‘understood’ their message. Teresa of Avila had moments of intense spiritual experience as a child but in Teresa’s case it was not until she was forty that she experienced the state of ‘mystical union’ with Christ for which she is renowned.

There are lessons to be learnt here about the spiritual life. The first is patience. People often express their frustration at the lack of spiritual ‘experience’ – that is to say, some felt emotional or even physical response in prayer and worship. The fact is that these experiences are God’s gift and he gives them as and when he chooses. The second is persistence. This is the one of the key lessons from Mother Julian and St Teresa – we must simply keep going. There is the point where raw faith and naked will are the only things that turn the heart and mind before God. It would seem that the Lord uses this ‘barren’ time to prepare the heart to receive him in a new way. It all takes time.

Someone might point out that Jesus was only thirty-two when he died. In response to this, one might argue that the fact of the incarnation makes Jesus a ‘special case’ but more importantly he lived with the fact of his own death in a way that we are spared – that certainly pushed him into spiritual and psychological territory that few are called to tread. The temptations in the wilderness are one time when we see this being worked out in his mind and will.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from all this is that ‘God has prepared good things for those who love him’. The Lord is drawing us closer to himself and he reveals himself to us in the way and time he chooses. There is no substitute for experience. The old saying ‘he who lives longest sees most’ is especially true in the things of the spirit. For the young it means be patient; for the middle-aged it means be patient; and for those for whom the final whistle is nearest the message is ‘be patient’. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’