A 400 year old conversation

 

brotherlawrence

Run No. 70         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 44’14” (PB 38’ 38”)

As I ran today I was reflecting on what I have been studying recently.

It is a small booklet of 12 pages of notes that were taken of a series of four conversations between two Frenchmen between 3rd August 1666 and 25th November 1667.

The one man was a Catholic priest, the other was a lay brother who worked in the kitchens of a monastery.

One man sought the spiritual advice of the other.

Counter-intuitively it was the priest who sought spiritual guidance from the kitchen-worker.

After the death of the kitchen-worker, the notes of this conversation were quickly put into print, at first by the Protestant Huguenot community, then later by the Catholic press.

They have become known as a classic work of spirituality by both communities and are still immensely popular today.

The kitchen-worker was born Nicholas Herman in Lorraine, Eastern France in 1611. He had a basic education but was forced to go into the army at 18 as no other career prospects opened up.

He was very quickly wounded when Swedish forces raided a neighbouring village. His injuries left him lame and in chronic pain for the rest of his life.

He was unable to continue in the army and got employment as a footman – a domestic servant – to a rich man. His duties were waiting at table and receiving visitors. But unfortunately he was naturally clumsy and his lameness only made this worse. His employer described him as;

‘A big clumsy fellow who smashed everything.’[1]

Somewhere around this time he had an experience during which he noticed a tree in winter, stripped of its leaves. He reflected that in a short while it would have new leaves, then flowers, and then fruit. This so impressed him as an example of how God provides for us, that it became a spiritual turning point in his life.

He entered a monastery, taking the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. He expected that his clumsiness and failings would be punished and that this would be something he could offer to God, but instead he found nothing but contentment. He would often say to God that he had duped him!

In the monastery his basic education meant he was only fit for menial work, so he was put in the kitchens, peeling vegetables and cooking meals. Cooking was something for which he had a natural aversion, but he decided to do it for the love of God and continued in it for the next 30 years of his life.

What makes his story so interesting was that he had the insight that his menial work could be just as pleasing to God and an act of spiritual worship as anything else; that he could do – and should do – everything that he did for the love of God.

‘He was happy if he could pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him alone, nothing else, not even His gifts.’[2]

His spirituality is full of self-knowledge, humanity and gentleness with himself and others;

“When I see that I am at fault I admit it and say: ‘That is just like me; I can do nothing right by myself’; when I do not fail, I acknowledge that it is God’s doing and give thanks to Him.”[3]

It is such a healthy and life-affirming spirituality. His simple method was to live his life in the presence of God, having a life-long communion and conversation with God.

‘That we ought to act very simply towards God, speaking frankly to Him, and asking His help in things as they occurred; in his experience, God never failed to give it.’ [4]

‘That with him the time of prayer was not different from any other; he had set times for it, which the Father Prior had appointed, but he neither wanted nor asked for them, for the most absorbing work did not divert him from God.’ [5]

His simplicity of life brought Brother Lawrence both peace and contentment;

 ‘That he gave thought neither to death nor to his sins, neither to Heaven nor to Hell, but only to the doing of small things for the love of God – small things because he as incapable of big ones. He need trouble no further, for whatever came after would be according to God’s will.’[6]

He came to find that his menial work actually brought him closer to God than the formal times of prayer;

‘That he was more united to God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.’[7]

What makes his approach to the spiritual life so great is that it is attainable for everyone;

‘That neither skill nor knowledge is required to enable us to go to God, but just a heart determined to turn to Him only, to beat for Him only, and to love Him only.’[8]

‘That our sanctification did not depend upon doing certain works, but upon doing for God that which we ordinarily did for ourselves.’[9]

‘That we ought not to get tired of doing little things for the love of God, because He looks at the love rather than the work. And we need not be surprised at our frequent failures at first; the time will come when we shall make our acts naturally and with gladness.’[10]

This spiritual approach sets the goal of our lives;

‘…to become as good worshippers of God as we possibly can, as we hope to be His perfect worshippers for all eternity.’[11]

I reflected how complicated we often make the spiritual life, when it really can be so simple; not easy, but simple.

As I ran I found myself again giving thanks to God for Brother Lawrence and offering my run to God as worship and an act of love.

 

[1] Donald ATTWATER (translator), The Practice of the Presence of God, London: Burns & Oates, 1926 (1693), p1

[2] ibid. p3

[3] ibid. p7

[4] ibid p5

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. p7

[7] ibid. p9

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid. p10

[10] ibid. p11

[11] ibid.

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Run no. 69 – A six-thirty mile pace – really?

stopwatch

 

Run No. 69         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 43’41” (PB 38’ 38”)

A sunny but frosty and cold day today, so I was running with full hat and gloves.

As I was approaching the half-way point of my run a passing cyclist called out,

Your doing a six-thirty mile pace, brilliant!

My first reaction was “That’s not right!” It seemed inconceivable to me that only my second run in after a five month break I would be doing that kind of pace.

I am also well aware that cycle speedometers are notoriously inaccurate and depend on the wheel measurement that the user enters; they can also be affected by tyre pressure changes.

A six-thirty mile pace would have led to a split time of 14’ 42”. My actual split time was 20’ 21”! That’s quite a margin of error on his speedometer!

I started to muse about how this poor cyclist probably thought he was a lot faster than he really was. Which led to a spiritual reflection; that the standard against which we measure ourselves is vitally important.

Like me you have probably heard rather unpleasant people boast that they are all right as they have never murdered anyone.

Well if the measure of a successful human life is not to murder someone, then they are doing fine. But what if the measure with which our lives are evaluated by God is completely different? If so then they are living with a completely false sense of security.

We know from the Bible that God’s command for humankind is to

Be holy as I am holy.

What this means in concrete terms is spelled out in the 10 commandments –

have no other gods, have no idols, honour God’s name, keep one day a week as a day to focus on God, honour your parents, do not murder, do not steal, do not lie, do not commit adultery (elsewhere extrapolated to all sexual activity outside of marriage), do not envy what others have[1].

Jesus resumed all these positively into two commandments;

Love God with all your heart, soul and strength.

Love your neighbour as yourself[2].

Which reminds us that it is the love relationship that God wants – the commandments are just examples of ways in which our conduct can impair that relationship.

If that relationship is healthy then we will naturally shy away from things that we know displease God.

It is also a tall order, an impossible standard. Which is why the Christian religion is a religion founded upon grace – God’s unmerited favour.

We bring our broken, rather shabby lives before God and we say we are truly sorry for the times where we have missed the mark (the literal meaning of the word ‘sin’). We ask his forgiveness and we receive it – we are reset on the right path, the slate is wiped clean, we begin again.

But you can only access this grace, mercy and forgiveness if we know we need it; which is why the measure we use to assess our lives is vitally important.

Make sure your measure is true and reach for God’s grace when you fall short.

 

 

[1] Exodus 20 :1-17

[2] Matthew 22 :37-40


Run no. 68 – The Way Out is Through

 

running-in-puddles

Run No. 66         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 41’20” (PB 38’ 38”)

Run No. 67          Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 43’39” (PB 38’ 38”)

Run No. 68         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 47’32” (PB 38’ 38”)

I’ve done that running-hiatus thing again. I haven’t been for a run for about 5 months. There are lots of reasons, but they are mostly to do with the cowardly avoidance of discomfort. But hey, I’m back and at it again.

You know, of course, that the first run after such a long break is going to be tough.

The first 20 minutes were fine but then the body started to feel the effort and complain.

I was expecting that, I was ready for that, I could handle that.

What I wasn’t expecting or ready for was that my usual route was flooded.

We have had wet weather for a few weeks now and the past 24 hours have been constant heavy rain. The already waterlogged ground has not been able to cope with this rain and the rivers are now bursting their banks.

As I began my loop of King Lear Lake in Watermeads Country Park I found myself running through sections of the path that were under water.

The first sections were short areas of flooding and the water was only a few centimetres deep, so that didn’t unduly concern me.

However as things progressed the sections of flooding lengthened to hundreds of metres and the water depth rose considerably.

The water was freezing cold, dirty and the depth of it forced me to high-step to avoid tripping. The extra effort required, by a body that was already suffering, was not inconsiderable!

Everything in me said stop; turn around; find another way; go home!

But I’m a runner.

Runners don’t do that.

So I did what runners do, I found a way to convince myself to carry on.

I told myself –

“I’m wet already.”

“This extra effort I’m being forced to do will pay dividends in fitness.”

“Don’t be a wimp!”

And so on…

And it worked. I made it all the way around. At times the water was just below my knees and I was forced to wade rather than run. But I never stopped.

I felt pretty heroic. The odd random dog-walker shouted their surprise at my bravery/stupidity! It felt pretty good.

I’m almost certain that I will be the only person to run around King Lear Lake today and I am good with that. It is a kind of victory.

Reflecting on this I was reminded that the greatest prisons that exist are the ones inside our own heads. When we are faced with an unexpected challenge – like unforeseen flooding – the greatest factor on whether or not we succeed is whether can imagine ourselves succeeding.

Without a positive mental attitude that can envisage success being possible, we will not even try to face the challenge; we are already defeated in our own heads.

In life most of our greatest challenges are the ones that we cannot foresee – unemployment, bereavement, relationship breakdown, serious illness or accidents.

It is in these moments that our mental approach is crucial. Can we see a way through? Can we imagine a life of joy and hope on the other side of this trauma?

It is here that a person of faith has a great advantage. We believe that God controls the course of our lives and that whatever we have to face, God has allowed it.

All the days planned for me were written in your book before I was one day old.[1]

If God has allowed it then he must know we can get through it and he must know that something good can come of it, as I don’t believe that God allows pointless suffering. Whether that god is something being transformed in us, or some benefit for others – sometimes it is not easy to identify the good. But I cannot conceive how God can be true to the nature he reveals in the Bible if he allows suffering that has no point.

The other great advantage a person of faith has is that we believe that when we open our lives to God we do not walk alone.

Even if I walk through a very dark valley, I will not be afraid because you are with me. Your rod and your shepherd’s staff comfort me.[2]

Often the only way out is through – running teaches us that. Life teaches us that. How good to know that you go through it with the God who knows the way through who knows that you have the capability to get through, and who will accomplish something worthwhile in the process.

Keep on running.

 

[1] Psalm 139 :16 ICB

[2] Psalm 23 :4 ICB


Runémon GO

pokemon-go

Run No. 59 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’05” (PB 38’ 28”)
Run No. 60 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 43’00” (PB 38’ 28”)
Run No. 61 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 41’23” (PB 38’ 38”)
Run No. 62 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 43’20” (PB 38’ 38”)
Run No. 63 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’01” (PB 38’ 38”)
Run No. 64 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 45’15” (PB 38’ 38”)
Run No. 65 Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 45’08” (PB 38’ 38”)

I find myself bemused by the current craze that is taking the nation by storm – Pokémon GO.

When I’m out running I see people holding their smartphones at arms length. It looks a  bit like Dr Spock holding his Tricorder analysing an unknown planet.

All these young people, who used to sit at home in front of the PC, or glued to their smartphones, are now outside walking around in the fresh air.

Part of can’t but welcome that as a healthy and positive thing.

However, there is a part of my mind that can’t help but see there is a degree of irony here.

People who were once cut off from the outside world are now out in it but only engaging with a world that isn’t there, whilst possibly/probably ignoring the real world that is.

In a very real sense they are only virtually present in the real world.

Games are by their very nature immersive, the best ones take you into another world. Smartphones are more engaging than books as they involve more of the senses – not only sight but also sound and touch.

I am aware that a counter argument can be made. People are often playing PokémonGO in social groups, I see a lot of lads and dads out Pokémon hunting together. So you could make the case that this is a healthier alternative to indoor, solo gaming.

One thing I am sure about is that when I run I do want to engage with the real world.

As a spiritual act I greet and speak God’s blessing on everyone I pass.

As I see things around me, whether they be good or bad, I try to respond to them in prayer.

I pray blessing on all that is good and give thanks for it.

I ask for forgiveness for all that is bad and pray that attitudes may be challenged/changed and that reparation might be made.

For me this is spiritual running in the real world.


Run no. 58 – Running for life

 

Run4Lifelogo

Run No. 58         Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’30” (PB 38’ 28”)

‘Training for anything?’ I was asked as I ran passed a bloke out today.

‘Only to try and stay alive!’ I riposted.

‘Me too’, he replied!

I added, ‘At my age it’s just a joy to still be able to run!’ I then sped off.

Well perhaps ‘sped’ is not exactly the right word.

And then it happened again.

That thing that running does to your brain. When something will fire off a synapse somewhere and you find yourself thinking new thoughts, seeing things in a different way, insights come.

I thought am I running as a form of training so that I can stay alive?

At one level I suppose the answer is yes. We all know that regular exercise is beneficial, that it protects you against several different forms of cancer and other diseases. We also know that keeping fit will help to maintain your quality of life for as long as possible.

Of course all of these gains are only statistical. They apply to populations, not necessarily to individuals.

I suppose if you include ‘quality of life’ as well as ‘quantity’ of life, then it makes better sense. We all want compressed morbidity i.e. to stay healthy and fit right up to the point that something kills us.

In connection with this reflection on the purpose of running, as friend suggested to me that I stop timing myself, that I forget the PB, and that I just enjoy the activity of running for itself.

I realise that there is merit in what he says.

Sometimes we are so focussed on the goals that we stop enjoying the process – and that is true in life as well as in sport.

When we are totally goal focussed we live diminished lives, we rob ourselves of joy, we become poorer people.

I think this is also true spiritually.

The Westminster catechism reminds us that,

‘man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’

Expressing it slightly differently St John of the Cross wrote,

‘at the evening (of our lives) we will be examined as to love.’

Neither of those leave place for a focus on achievement.

What we are called to do is to love God, and to allow His love in us to reach out to others – in words and actions.

Whatever the results of that may be, is not for us to determine. It is beyond our pay grade.

If we are focussed on spiritual achievement we set ourselves up for a fall.

Firstly, because we have no control over what God will do with our service, so we risk either disappointment (if we see nothing happening), or an overinflated sense of our own importance (if God does indeed choose to work through us). Neither of these is helpful.

Secondly, the most significant danger this results focus poses is that it distracts us from the main thing – our love relationship with God – glorifying, loving and enjoying Him. It’s a little like being given an expensive present and discarding it to play with the box it came in.

Enjoy the run for itself.


Run no. 54, 55, 56 and 57 – Run with a mission

Run with a Mission

Run No. 54         Distance: 4.53 miles     (7.3 km)               Time: 44’03”     (PB 38’ 28”)

Run No. 55         Distance: 4.53 miles     (7.3 km)               Time: 42’44”     (PB 38’ 28”)

Run No. 56         Distance: 4.53 miles     (7.3 km)               Time: 42’02”     (PB 38’ 28”)

Run No. 57         Distance: 4.53 miles     (7.3 km)               Time: 42’02”     (PB 38’ 28”)

 

Can the act of running change the place we run through?

It’s a somewhat bizarre idea. Yet for people of faith it is a core belief that somehow our presence, or more correctly, God’s presence in us, brings transformation.

The Bible is full of calls for those who are open to God to live differently, Jesus will speak to his followers of being salt and light in the world;

“You are the salt of the earth…

“You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:13-16

Salt speaks of preserving, purifying and light obviously is opposed to darkness and all that symbolises.

So the presence of people who are open to God, living according to his values and priorities, showing his love to the world, should by their presence, change the nature of the place where they are.

There is a poetic picture of this in the psalms, it is a pilgrim psalm, a song sung by the people of Israel as they made their annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.

‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,

they make it a place of springs;

the autumn rains also cover it with pools.’

Psalm 84:6

The word ‘Bakah’ means to weep, and this word play seems to be intended. The idea is that as the worshipping band of pilgrims pass through this place of weeping they transform it.

The Hebrew word for ‘pools’ is ‘berakah’ which also means ‘blessing’.

So ‘bakah’ becomes ‘berakah’, ‘weeping’ turns to ‘blessing’; as God’s people pass through.

Some of this is the natural effect of their different way of living and relating, their kinder, gentler, more loving approach to others.

However there is also a sense that something is happening at a spiritual, supernatural level too.

Jesus spoke a lot about the establishment of the ‘Kingdom of God’. This was not going to be a socio-political entity, but rather a mystical/spiritual one.

The Kingdom of God comes when people choose to live under the authority of the King. When individuals and families choose to turn away from selfishness and evil and to live in a way that pleases God, that is when the Kingdom comes. As such it comes invisibly, it comes slowly, and yet its presence is powerfully felt and radically transformative of society.

In the second century an unknown author remarked on this fact;

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.

Epistle to Diognetes c. 130A.D.

Although the author was not a follower of Jesus himself, he could not help but notice that the presence of Jesus people in a society transformed it for the better.

So the Kingdom of God is established by the simple presence of those who live under the authority of the King.

In the Old Testament the Kingdom of God is foreshadowed by the Promised Land, this territory that God will give to His people.

There are a couple of verses that speak about how they are to take possession of this land;

I will give you every place where you place your feet.

Every place where you set your foot will be yours

Deuteronomy 11:24

 

I will give you every place where you set your foot

Joshua 1:3

It is simply by being present that they earn the right to the land, God will give them wherever they are willing to go.

As we run, do we run with this in view?

Are we people of salt and light whose lives, values, behaviour, conversation, and priorities are so radical and strikingly different to those of society around us, that our simple presence brings transformation?

Are we asking God to establish His Kingdom in every place where our foot falls?

Run with a mission.

 

 


Run no. 53 – Running and the Power of Belief

Belief sign with a beautiful day

Run No. 53         Distance: 4.53 miles     (7.3 km)               Time: 42’32””   (PB 38’ 28”)

I came across some interesting research today. It showed that people who regularly experience high levels of stress are 43% more likely to die in a three year period that those who experience no stress.

Not that surprising perhaps, until you learn that this statistic is only true of people who believe stress to be bad for them.

People who do not believe that stress is harmful show no increased risk of death, even when they live with high levels of stress.[1]

I found that rather amazing!

There has always been the recognition of the power of positive thinking, but it appears that the reverse is also true.

Negative thinking can kill you.

If we apply that to slightly less than life-and-death activity of running the question becomes, what negative expectations do we carry with us and how might they affect us?

Do we run carrying the expectation of injury, hard work, breathlessness, and pain?

What if we didn’t?

To take things one step further, what if we were to interpret the uncomfortable physical responses to the activity of running in a positive way – as the signs of our body accustoming itself to a new level of performance, to fat being burned up, to cardio-vascular strengthening – would we then experience them in a different way? Can we make them our friends? And if we could what difference would this make to our performance?

St Paul seems to have practised this in his own life. He did not have a stress-free existence – ship-wrecked three times, beaten and left for dead more than once, imprisoned, betrayed etc. And yet he seemed able to take it all in his stride.

How could he cope with such difficulties and struggles? It was his conviction of God’s hand guiding and controlling his life;

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NIV)

St Paul’s fixed belief was that God was at work in the circumstances of his life and that therefore their end result must ultimately be good. So he could accept them, be thankful for them, even if he could not see what that good was from his own human and limited perspective and even if the good that they led to was for others and not for himself.

St Paul’s belief as a Christian was that ultimately his future was to be with the God who loved him. Therefore, even the ultimate stress raiser – death – loses its power. Far from being the ultimate enemy, death now becomes the greatest friend, for it ushers us into the full presence of the God who has loved us our whole lives.

Perhaps this is why people of faith cope better with the stresses of everyday life, because they certainly do. A thousand studies appraising the effects of prayer on health have shown that:

  • Hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attend regularly.
  • Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not practice a religion.
  • Elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly.
  • People who are more religious tend to become depressed less often. When they do become depressed, they recover more quickly.[2]

Running and exercise are proven to be good for health and longevity, but if you pray while you are running you will probably do even better!

 

 

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en

[2] Harold Koenig, M.D., Handbook of Religion and Health