Making an effort

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

On Epiphany I led a quiet day on T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’. In the morning I introduced participants to the sermon for Christmas Day 1622 by Lancelot Andrewes which provided the opening lines and the theme for Eliot’s poem. After describing the rigours of the Magis’ journey Andrewes makes a comparison with our own response to the call of God. He suggests that most of us would wait at least until Easter before beginning the journey and then he says ‘remember the old proverb: the nearer the church the farther from God.’ I took this to heart bearing in mind that it takes me thirty seconds to move from my kitchen table to the church.

The ‘Journey of the Magi’ describes the hardships and darkness of the Christian journey – it is like a ‘living death’. It is one through a hostile landscape and often the voices ring in our ears: ‘this is all folly.’ The journey means sacrifice of many kinds and a real effort from those who travel; thus ‘the nearer the church the farther from God.’ On Ash Wednesday we hear from the letter of James: ‘if you draw near to God, he will draw near to you.’ The Christian life is not one of lying back and enjoying the ride – a real effort at self-propulsion is required for momentum to get under way.

Think of Lent as beginning a new stage on the journey. This is a stage when you must be determined to break new ground and climb higher and further. It is an opportunity, indeed an invitation, to experience new perspectives on yourself and the world. But you have to make the effort. Lent is a time to change the pattern of your day or week. How many aspects of your Christian life are decided by the simple criterion which might be called ‘the choice that costs me least in effort’?

One might argue that solid and sustainable patterns are essential on our Christian journey: the response to that might be: That’s fine as long as it make demands on you, tests your will and draws real effort on your part which engages you in body, mind and spirit. Please don’t just ‘do the same thing again for Lent this year.’ Do not take the low road – take the high road. Go the extra mile.

Our Lenten disciplines should stretch us to the point where we cannot rely on ourselves, but find ourselves struggling and asking for Grace to complete the course. Our disciplines should not be devised to help us find the limit of our own capacities but rather to the point where we experience our need for God. His grace is made more active in our weakness. There is so much in our Christian life we take for granted, so much with which we are spoon-fed; we are so well provided for despite our very little effort. If we really desire to draw closer to God, we must come to a realistic appraisal of just how far we are from him and of the effort we must make to close the gap. Hence the proverb: ‘the nearer the church the farther from God.’