I remember the Headmaster telling new prefects, ‘It is always better to begin with a strict regime and then be more relaxed as seems appropriate. It is almost impossible to tighten things up when you begin with a more liberal and tolerant approach.’ Experience over the past forty-five years has shown this to be the case. Recent research from the United States on the decline of the Christian communities has shown that those communities that expect more in the way of commitment to worship and service do not experience the decline of others. The same is true for the individual. The default position for most people is to find the line of least resistance, the lowest common denominator: it is to give but ‘definitely to count the cost!’ To meet high expectations in the attendance at corporate worship, in the giving of time and money, demands the self-discipline and self-sacrifice that are hardly common currency in contemporary society.
Since Christmas I have been preparing young people and adults for confirmation; towards the end of the course we begin to look at the disciplines of Christian discipleship including personal prayer, study and attendance at Mass. In trying to be as practical (and pastoral) as possible I explore with each person what this might mean for him or her; it is, in effect, an exercise in spiritual direction. In most instances there is a realization that this will mean a complete re-ordering of a daily or weekly routine, throwing up all kinds of unexpected complexities and confrontations. A first response is to try and make it all ‘fit in’ or to find some kind of compromise. Every reader will know that this is a recipe for a slow deterioration in the spiritual life.
The truth is that a person can duck and dive as much as they like but in the end, if they desire to love and serve the Lord, hard choices have to be made and this is when the essential life-changing work of the Holy Spirit is needed. The spiritual life is indeed that: ‘If the Spirit is the source of our life, than the Spirit must direct our course,’ writes Paul to the Galatians. Setting up a rule of life to live in and for Christ is not the same as setting up a training schedule to run a marathon. At the heart of these disciplines is the beating heart of God’s love.
If we can stop thinking about the disciplines and practices of the Christian life as a ‘programme’ and begin again by understanding that it is a relationship of love then we will make some headway, because any commitment will not be a self-willed commitment but a joyful response of thankfulness. The ‘take Lord and receive’ prayer from the end of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius expresses this beautifully: ‘Take Lord and receive all my freedom, my memory, my understanding and my will, all I have and cherish you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus. I ask for nothing more. Amen’
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House