Wednesday 15 June 2022

Getting out of the way

I was given today a beautiful gift: a copy of the prayer journal of the American novelist Flannery O’Connor, which she kept from January 1946 to September 1947. O’Connor was not quite twenty-one when she started it and only twenty-two when she wrote her last entry. It is essentially a book of prayers, heartfelt and utterly sincere. Because the first pages are missing, the slim volume (the original was only an exercise book) launches in directly, sharing something of the young woman’s desire:

‘Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.’ She understands clearly enough the reason why we cannot ‘see’ God. ‘I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.’

‘I am in the way,’ she says. If we take a moment to ponder that admission, we might well find it fittingly our own too. I am in the way. Time and again we make claim to want what God wants and to do what God wills, but again and again we signally fail on either count. It could be most discouraging, but since we are in Christ, we should not let it be so.

The truth, which as Mr Wilde said ‘is rarely pure and never simple’ — and that goes for the truth about ourselves — has to be borne, though we can, and indeed must, make changes where we can, allowing the Lord’s grace to permeate our lives and bring about a gradual conversion of heart and mind. For us, it really is a work of Divine Grace. God alone knows who we are; it is His will that we should become this or that beloved person, and He alone can enable it. We are work in progress — how can we know ourselves, since we are not yet complete? Please God, we have at least enough self-knowledge to make the lives of others less impossible. To see ourselves as others see us is not always a very pleasant sort of revelation, even when a kind, if exasperated, friend has sat us down and told us our faults and of the impact they have in their lives and those of others. It is a mortifying and a humbling experience.

But might it not also be a grace, an opening for real change? Our capacity for self-delusion is enormous, and the joke (or is it the pity) of it, is that though we see this so clearly in our friends, fellow parishioners and colleagues, we don’t see it quite so obviously in ourselves. It must take a lot of self-knowledge and honesty to see the ways we get in the way of God, blocking His action, grace and love in our lives, preventing us from doing anything we might do for Him, choosing to blame everything that goes wrong, or that we don’t like, on our families, friends, our clergy etc.

Next week we celebrate, a day earlier than usual, the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, a model of true integrity of character, who approached his mission with the simple and clear understanding: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’ John was ready to take the lower place, to see his disciples go off and follow his kinsman, Jesus, while he preached in the desert. He was willing to give himself totally for the cause of Christ, content to surrender the front rank in the battle, ready to decrease that Christ might increase. The Baptist knew the truth about the Lord and about himself. Centuries later, St Charles de Foucauld, the Parisian playboy who turned desert mystic, unearthed the secret, which, you will not be surprised to learn, is Love. ‘When one is in love, one is humble, one sees oneself as very insignificant, as nothing besides one’s beloved.’ Is this how we feel beside our Lord?

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