The Power of Bare Trees

bare tree

‘The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen.

During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul.

 This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.’

(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 1693, p1)

This is the story of the conversion of Brother Lawrence, an unschooled peasant born in 1611 in eastern France. As a young man he went off to be a soldier and was soon wounded. This led to a life-long disability that made him clumsy and awkward.

He recounts here the story of how he came to faith.

All it took was the sight of a bare tree in winter.

Which is amazing, as I know that I have seen many thousands of bare trees in my life-time, none of which has been a moment of spiritual epiphany for me.

I imagine Brother Lawrence had previously seen many of them too.

Yet such is the power of the Holy Spirit in a human soul that when he chooses to act he can take a mundane ordinary object that we have seen thousands of times before and yet use it to bring insight and whole-life transformation.

I imagine if Brother Lawrence were to have lived in our time the story might have been very different.

There would have been books written about how to use bare trees in evangelism. There would have been conferences and seminars. No doubt there would be good-hearted Christian groups going up and down the country tearing the leaves off trees as a missional act.

Which is, of course, to completely miss the point. What made the moment a spiritual revelation that altered the whole direction of Brother Lawrence’s life and made him one of the most valued spiritual guides in the world-wide Christian church was not the tree – but the activity of the Holy Spirit in his heart and mind.

When the Spirit moves He needs almost no material to work with. He can take anything at all and make that a means of open a person’s heart and mind to God. And that can happen in an instant.

It is interesting to read that Brother Lawrence says that at that instant there was born such a love for God in his heart that after 40 years of monastic life, centred on living for God and for others, he was not sure at all that his love for God had increased one bit.

I suppose that is a bit lie falling in love. When you encounter someone and your heart goes ‘boom’ and you feel such an intense attraction to them – does that ever get stronger over the years? I would say it alters, it matures, it widens and deepens, but I am not sure it gets stronger than that initial ‘boom’ moment.

All of which is to say that;

  • we need to have more faith in the accessibility of God’s grace.
  • we need to have a greater expectation that God can reach people where they are in the midst of their ordinary lives and activities.
  • we need to re-focus our energies and efforts less on programs and methods and more on prayerful bringing people to God asking that His Holy Spirit would be at work in their lives, ambushing them with God’s love where and when they least expect it.

A bare tree – who would have thought what it could do?

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The ‘He’ in ‘Here’

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As God is the ultimate, unsurpassed being, any encounter with Him must, of necessity, be the summit of a human life; the nec plus ultra of human experience.

Consequently, to miss out on such an encounter is the greatest disaster or impoverishment a human being can ever know.

In the Bible we see many references to the presence and activity of God in the world – what is termed theologically, ‘immanence’. Yet many Christians, those who one would imagine are most open to encountering the divine, seem to live as if God was largely absent from His creation.

I wonder if the words of Jacob apply to us?

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28:16-17, NIVUK)

What a disaster to have been in the very presence of God and yet not to have known it!

Just think, Jacob might have woken up, walked away, and continued his journey completely ignorant that he had lain at the very Gate of Heaven. Only God’s divine revelation enabled him to see the glory that he almost missed.

This theme re-occurs throughout scripture – a stark and sustained presentation of man’s startling inability to perceive the divine in front of his own face. At one point a man’s own donkey has more spiritual perception than the man himself;

Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.” (Numbers 22:31-33, NIVUK)

The writings of the Celtic Church are a helpful corrective as they awaken our sluggish senses to the Presence in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

Earth is crammed with heaven,

And every bush afire with God,

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes

(Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh)

Achieving our full human potential, something which can only be achieved through the experience of divine encounter, will only happen if we open ourselves and attune ourselves to the Presence that surrounds us.

There has to come a day for each of us, when we wake to the fact that ‘the place on which you stand is holy ground.’ It is in the absolutely ordinary parts of life that He comes to meet us. (David Adam, The cry of the deer, p85)

As the Jesuit mystical theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote,

…by virtue of Creation and still more of Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary everything is sacred. (Teilhard de Chardin, Le Milieu Divin, p66)

Christ’s incarnation is the pivot point for all human existence. In Christ, God comes down and moves into our neighbourhood;

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14, NIVUK)

The Holy Spirit’s coming at Pentecost serves only to deepen and widen this experience of ‘God among us’. As David Adam points out;

 If you asked a Celt where is Jesus now, the reply would be very similar to the one Procula received from Longinus in Masefield’s play, ‘The Trial of Jesus’. She asked, “Do you think he is dead?” and he replied, “No, lady, I don’t.” When asked, “Then where is he?” Longinus replied, “Let loose in the world, lady.” (David Adam, The Cry of the Deer, London: Triangle, 1987, p50)

Christ is ‘let loose in the world’, through the presence of the Holy Spirit active in and around us, in the warp and weft of our everyday lives.

It was this strong Celtic sense of Christ’s accompanying and surrounding Presence that transformed Celtic Christians. For them no day, no place, no task was ordinary – for everything was done in God and with God and for God; everything was supernatural and redolent with the potential of grace.

When we come to the Celtic Church, we discover men and women who are quite simple, are not particularly clever or gifted, but to them, God is a living and glorious reality which supernaturalises their everyday life and transforms their most ordinary events into sublime worship. For them God is not a God of the past, or confined to the Bible or the Holy Land, but the Divine Reality to be encountered each day, in each event and each decision. This is a God of the Now, involved in the present situation, and His will and way are to be discovered and followed. (David Adam The cry of the deer, p67f)

And up to now…

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In the Confessio of Saint Patrick, written around 493 AD, the old missionary bishop reflects on his life and ministry. He identifies the key lessons he has learnt in his experience of living with God and, with great honesty, he writes them down for the benefit of those who also seek to live well with God.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Saint Patrick attests is the inherent fragility of his faith.

But I do not trust myself, ‘as long as I am in this body of death’ C44: 105/6

Here, Patrick quotes Saint Paul in Romans 7:24, where, again with absolute transparency, St Paul lays bare his own struggle to live in a manner worthy of a Christian. A challenge that his own body, with its inherent tendency for sinfulness, opposes.

Saint Patrick also makes clear that his struggle is not merely against recalcitrant flesh, but also against an opposing spiritual force that works in and through this weakness,

 …he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith

and from that chastity of an unfeigned religion which I have

proposed to keep to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. C44: 107-109

He acknowledges the activity of a powerful spiritual adversary who uses Patrick’s own fleshly weaknesses to try and turn him away from the faith he has embraced and the God he has vowed to serve.

The hostile flesh is always dragging towards death,

that is towards allurements to do that which is forbidden. C44: 110

Whilst he does not state specifically what these ‘allurements’ are, we can well imagine the possibilities. Patrick has been called by God to leave family, friends and homeland, to exile himself in a foreign land, to minister to those of a different language and culture and to seek to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and establish a Christian Community amongst them.

Patrick faced opposition, which was sometimes violent. He was no doubt often lonely, tired, dispirited, discouraged. The temptations that might then be rained down upon a man are self-evident.

Patrick also identifies a more subtle struggle,

And I know in part wherein I have not lived a perfect life. C44: 112

Not only are there fleshly and demonically inspired temptations there are also the constant reminder of past failures, ever-present weaknesses. These present themselves to his mind and manifest his failure to be what he should be. He has to live with the reality of his own hypocrisy, which undermines his commitment, saps his morale.

Patrick also speaks of the opposition to his mission, sometimes even active opposition, which came from within the Church.

…many were trying to hinder my embassy.

They were even talking among themselves behind my back

and saying, ‘Why does this man throw himself into danger

among enemies who do not know God?’

Not out of malice,

but it did not seem wise to them,’ C46: 137-142

The idea of an organised mission to a pagan people was, to this point unprecedented. Many within the Church considered this ‘novelty’ unnecessary, unwise, and inappropriate.

In the light of all this, we might well ask, what is it that keeps Patrick going? In the face of these opposing forces, the inherent tendency to sin of his own body, the actions of a maleficent force opposed to his faith, the constant hardship and struggle of a difficult life in a foreign culture, the harsh reality of personal failure, even the active opposition of other church leaders who question the validity of his missionary approach; where does Patrick find the courage to carry on?

Well, fortunately Patrick reveals his secret to us. He says he can say with honesty before God,

…there grew in me the love of God and fear of him,

and up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith. C44: 118/9

Patrick can look back over his life and see that he has come to love God and to live in fear before him. This fear is not a negative, servile fear, but rather the proper respect and bearing towards God that is birthed in a man or woman when they have come to glimpse something of God’s majesty and grandeur, his power and holiness. The contrast between this and our own evident weakness and sinfulness is such that it engenders a holy ‘fear’. This, in turn, becomes a motivating force in our life with God. This ‘fear’ is expressed in a life that worships God in all it does.

The reality of this love for God, and this holy fear, are evidence to Patrick of God’s grace at work in his life. He testifies that this grace has enabled him, however imperfectly, to keep the faith until now. But he is not complacent. His testimony is only, ‘up to now’. He is conscious of his utter reliance upon God to bring his life of faith to a successful conclusion.

It strikes me that this spiritual advice is as helpful now in the 21st century as it was in the 5th. The spiritual realities of human existence and not changed one iota in the intervening millennia and a half.

Like Patrick, anyone who seriously tries to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will immediately find himself / herself in the midst of an heroic struggle of epic proportions.

The spiritually twistedness of our human flesh will, like those shopping trolleys with wonky wheels, reveal immediately its unfailing tendency to shoot off in the wrong direction.

If this were not bad enough the situation is worsened by a spiritual adversary who will stoop to any base level, try any underhand trick, in order to knock us off course. One of his favourites being to simply remind us of our imperfection, of our manifest hypocrisy, that we are not the perfect Christians we try to be and know we should be.

We may well also encounter, alas, opposition from within the Church itself, people who don’t understand our calling and who cast doubt on our work for God.

There is only one thing that will keep us on track and help us bear up in the face of such trials – the reality of a love for God and a holy fear of God that is growing, however slowly, in our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.

None of us can ever say more than,

‘And up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith’ C44: 119

 

 

Bare-naked Trust

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I recently came across this great segment about the life of St Patrick that summarizes just about every aspect of Christian discipleship and spiritual pilgrimage.

 

“Yet, here in the silence,

the loneliness and the human deprivation,

in the land of his physical and spiritual captivity,

Patrick in his powerlessness found his God,

recalled what he had learned of him from Sacred Scripture in his youth,

made or renewed his baptismal covenant with him,

and gradually learned to rely on him alone”

 

(de Paor M. B. ‘Patrick the pilgrim apostle of Ireland’, p43, commenting on “Confessio of Saint Patrick” C5, 55-56)

 

The “learning to rely on God alone” is the essence of the successful spiritual life. A success that is not measured by any results – as if it were possible for us to know what God wishes to do through us and to accurately determine whether or not this happened – but rather by the quality of our relationship with God.

 

As a general rule,

 

 Human beings place their trust in God only when they have no other option.

 

Something I believe any close reading of scripture or Christian hagiography will bear out.

 

Therefore getting to a place of deep encounter with God will only be possible in the crucible of enduring difficulty.

 

Which is why many of our frantic prayers for God to take us out of difficult, unpleasant circumstances are misplaced and misdirected.

 

If God is to take us deeper into himself, he must take us through some deep waters.

 

St Patrick gives us clear guidance about how he managed to successfully make it through his own extended experience of suffering.

 

“…and many times a day I WAS PRAYING.

More and more the love of God and fear of him came to me,

and my faith was being increased,

and THE SPIRIT was being moved”

 

(‘Confessio’ 16:3-5, circa 590 AD)

 

 

Goose or Dove ?

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In the Celtic Christian tradition the Holy Spirit was represented, not as the dove of biblical imagery, but rather as the wild goose (An Geadh-Glas).

Their rationale in choosing this image for the Holy Spirit was multiple.

They knew that wild geese aren’t controllable. They do not live tamed or bent to the will of man. They are migratory birds who come and go, with no warning, answerable only to their own internal motivations.

They are also noisy, raucous, birds! No gentle dove-like cooing, but rather a loud honk! Living in the French countryside, as I do, I experience this first-hand. Whenever I go around to my neighbour’s his geese quickly commence a loud honking, a sound which is challenging, not consoling; strong, not weak; confrontational and slightly disturbing. It is for this reason that  geese often functioned as guard-dogs. They are quite scary.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit does come like a gentle dove. He comes bringing healing, consolation, peace.

But sometimes He comes more like a wild, noisy goose. And that it an entirely different matter!

In His goosely-guise the Holy Spirit comes to disturb, shake up, challenge, awaken.

Celtic spirituality valued this goosely ministry even more than the dove-like ministry. Perhaps that is why they were so successful in mission and discipleship?

Are you for the goose or the dove?