It’s now our first bit of Ordinary Time—the little patch of green between the joy of Christmas (ahh) and the joy of Lent (yikes). Most of us are back at work, and Christmas seems a long way off and Lent awfully close.
I read something in my parish bulletin today that gave me pause for thought. It was a reminder to give our time to others—because that’s how we can give our time to Jesus.
This is true. But we should also give our time to Jesus directly. A lot of us find this much harder.
A common spiritual trap for good people is what my spiritual director and others call “activism”. In this context, it’s thinking that doing a great many things for God is enough to build a relationship with him.
But activism is not the same as relationship. It’s the difference between being someone’s employee and someone’s best friend.
We know that in real life it’s usually unwise to be best friends with the boss, because one day they may have to sack you. Is that how we see God?
Jesus is God, and he tells us he doesn’t want employees; he wants friends. But because he’s God, this friendship is special and different.
It’s not on equal terms. It’s friendship between someone created and the person who created them out of nothing, and out of love.
Which of the two do you think Jesus likes better? Spoiler alert: read Luke 10. This is a great chapter: you get the sending out of the first 72 evangelists (action), and the parable of the Good Samaritan (action).
And then you get the story of Martha and Mary, where all this action for the Lord – although very commendable – is put in its proper context.
You can easily be the friend of God if you follow his commandments, come to him with all your troubles, lean on him, listen to him, and trust him. That way, you will really know each other.
But if you treat him like an equal, or an employee of your own, or a vending machine, or an outdated bore, or if you mostly ignore him, then you won’t really know each other.
And if you don’t know each other, all the activism in the world won’t save you (Matthew 7: 22-23).
Activism is like acedia (sloth, a deadly sin). We can fill up every moment with busy-ness for God, but neglect spending quality time with him in person.
Even very holy busy-ness can be a way of avoiding intimacy with God. And yet this intimacy is the one thing he really craves.
I really can recommend Fr Jacques Philippe’s very short book Time for God. It’s been such an education for me, because it’s the easiest book I’ve ever read on mental prayer (as differs from vocal prayer).
People can tie themselves into awful knots over mental prayer. They make it far harder work than it usually needs to be.
Philippe cuts to the chase, explains what mental prayer is and isn’t, provides some very simple ground rules and tells you what to look out for. And then he says, off you go. Go and do it.
What he says makes perfect sense. To get to know another person in friendship – and Jesus is a person – involves spending time at rest, in stillness, relaxing with them.
It’s listening, conversing, asking questions and receiving answers, and sharing yourself in return. It involves the gift of your time, and it’s amazing how stingy we can be with this.
Philippe says that also it needs daily consistency and effort. Of course it does—it’s also a marriage, and every good marriage needs daily consistency and effort.
God doesn’t need to make the effort, but we do. We are weak and forgetful, so we need to form a habit of daily mental prayer—time spent with God.
The rewards are amazing. Fr Philippe says, “There can be no deep, radical purification of the heart without the practice of mental prayer.
“Otherwise, our wisdom and prudence will always remain on the human plane, and we will never reach true inner freedom.”
He also quotes St John of the Cross on the dangers of action without it: “Without it, everything is merely noise….Such people do little more than nothing, sometimes absolutely nothing, or even do harm.”
If you’re an action-based person like me, this book might be just the ticket for you, too. You can start chewing on it now as Lent approaches.