Readings: Malachi iv.1-2a, 2 Thess iii.6–13, Luke xxi.5–19
‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’ (Luke 21.19)
The word ‘endurance’ has overtones of physical effort. And not the intensive, explosive effort required to sprint, or power lift, but the slow burn, marathon, expenditure of stamina which requires a very different kind of preparation. The training for endurance events is very different from that of a sprinter. The training reflects the event – a slow, steady building up of stamina, of mental and physical reserves, over a period of weeks and months, so that during the event we do not ‘burn out’ all at once.
Marathon runners among you will be familiar with the concept of ‘hitting the wall’ – a dreadful mental and physical barrier which occurs when the energy reserves run out, and the body starts to burn its own resources instead – the period taken by the body to adjust is one of huge fatigue, and the feeling that ‘you simply can’t go on.’ But marathon runners do, because they are trained – they know it will happen, they anticipate it, and train to overcome it.
At least once last week we have considered the ways in which being here can feel uncomfortable. Yesterday we met with some of those who are considering following in our footsteps. We are drawn together, and set apart, for a purpose, and the working out of that purpose itself requires endurance. Even allowing for the congeniality of this place, we feel constrained to think, and work, and act, in specific and sometimes limited ways. We become conscious of ‘House Style’, of the views of others, of our own exposure and vulnerability which are such a challenge within our formation. Our behaviour changes, so that people who have been responsible, mature adults rediscover their inner infant, as issues which would not have mattered otherwise suddenly assume an overwhelming importance. We talk blithely about the seminary being a ‘hothouse’, forgetting that a hothouse is a place where things are brought together to grow.
And one of the things that needs to grow is our capacity to endure – to anticipate the sort of life we’re being called to lead, with the joys and privileges we will discover, the obstacles and barriers we will encounter, and find the resources to push through them, to use them fruitfully, to keep going, to keep growing. There are parts of our training when we confront the fact that, once we are ordained, life will not always be a bed of roses. There will be complexities, difficulties, complications, irritations.
An incidence of opposition came last week from Norman Bonney of the National Secular Society, who used the National Remembrance events across the weekend (and the gathering at the Cenotaph in Whitehall) to call for the removal of all Christian reference from the national act of remembrance. This is an event on a national scale, but there will no doubt be similar conversations and currents happening right now, in the parishes to which you have been called. One former student of this house is currently contending with a Charity led, church organised Town Carol Service in which they have been asked to be ‘less religious’ because ‘it puts people off’.
I’m sorry if all that seems a bit bleak. But if you want bleak, look no further than the words of Jesus which precede his call for endurance. He speaks of the destruction of all we hold dear, of natural disaster, war and conflagration, of arrest, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal by those closest to us, hatred, death. And this is the canvas on which our endurance must be painted. We must adapt to the way of living that will be necessary in order to be sustained and to grow in such a society as this, not so that we will be preserved, or merely survive, but so that we will bear fruit for the Lord.
So, where does the business of endurance begin? First of all, and most obviously, we turn to God, and we seek his grace. The Ordinal reminds us starkly that
You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened.
So, we start by recognising that the life to which we are called is beyond our strength. Whatever gifts, skills, dispositions and experiences we bring, it will not be enough. And so we turn daily to God, asking for his grace, power and mercy. We immerse ourselves in his Word, we are fed by his Body and Blood in the Mass.
That daily round has a purpose, and part of the purpose is to equip us, to build up our stamina, gradually and in unspectacular fashion over a period of time. We pray that God will reveal himself to us in the scriptures, and that our heart space for him will grow, so that his presence and his activity in our lives will increase as selfish desires and dispositions decrease. In short, we ask God to act, asking him to do those things which we cannot do ourselves. Think of that deceptively short sentence in the section of the ordinal I quoted a moment ago, carrying a weight of meaning and responsibility: Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s an incredible understatement.
The language of so much Catholic prayer which we gather as part of the interior life re-enforces this sense of inadequacy which only God can fill. ‘You are love. You are wisdom. You are humility. You are endurance’ says St Francis in one of his prayers. Francis also knew that we can’t make this journey, endure this calling, on our own. We need the church for companionship, the gathering of those who break bread together. We need each other’s company, and the company of heaven, those who walk with us in light. And, supremely, we need Jesus.
And so we seek grace. But we do so aware of the second factor, which is our own will, our own desire. We have to want to put those things in place, to want to be prudent in our preparations, and hence there is the importance of our dispositions, attitudes and habits which enable us to be receptive to the grace which is God’s to give. Without this we cannot be filled with the breath of the Spirit – we will simply be standing in a draught. Our praying, working, eating, living together – these are the daily chores of grace – the means by which we build our endurance.
For those who are so called by God, the call to the ordained life is a life of great joy. There are no words to describe the privileges which are part of this sharing in Holy Order. And it is to love and joy that we are called, in the face of whatever the world is like, because we are called to be agents of the transformation which only Christ can bring. So, resolve to seek the grace of endurance, and determine that you will face difficulty with joy, and seek always the grace of God, who is able to accomplish in us far more than we can ask, or imagine.
Preached at St Stephen’s House, Oxford on Sunday 17 November 2013