by Revd. Phil Bradshaw
Taken from St John's Parish Magazine - Winter 2022
I watched a TV series recently in which various celebrities went on a pilgrimage, retracing the journey of St Columba from Ireland to Iona. Most ended up confirmed in their own convictions, which I guess was predictable. As we pass through Advent, however, we can’t help noticing the unpredictability of God. We can never be sure of how or when God will make himself known in our lives, or even of how we ourselves will react.
According to Jesus, that means we must always be ready. One of his more disconcerting stories is the one about the people who said to the Lord, ‘We cast demons out in your name,’ only to hear him reply, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ It sounds pretty harsh, but, as with many things that Jesus said, he is probably only providing a reality check.
‘Being ready’ is not a matter of expecting Jesus to return at any moment, like those eccentrics who go to the top of a hill to wait for the event. It’s about fine-tuning our own lives so that we are alive to God at all times in the world around us.
I once prayed that the Lord would direct me in my giving. Later, the same day, I was walking through town when I suddenly became aware of an old beggar woman holding out her cup a few yards in front of me. I had no coins on me, only a banknote which I’d been saving for something, and by the time I’d debated whether to give it to her, I had already walked on past.
That haunted me for a while. My prayer had been answered immediately – Jesus met me on the street in the person of the beggar – but it turned out I wasn’t ready. It felt like failure until I realised there are no failures with God. Everything is usable, including that experience.
I was introduced to contemplative prayer a few decades ago through the Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello, who wrote a book on Awareness. It changed the way I thought about prayer and opened up an avenue for further exploration which is ongoing to this day. Perhaps because of its simplicity, the essence of contemplative prayer is often reduced to a single word or phrase, such as love of God. In this context, we might say it’s about cultivating ‘readiness.’
The fact is that to be alive to God takes real work. It’s no wonder that Paul compares it to an athlete keeping fit. ‘Be alert,’ says Peter (1 Pet.5.8). The conditions of material existence mean that much of the time we are unconscious of God. Monastics, both Christian and non-Christian, often tell us we are asleep. ‘Practise the presence of God,’ says Brother Lawrence. It’s a daily thing.
Advent means coming, but there’s nothing predictable about it. If we’d known God was coming to earth, no one would have predicted a baby in a manger. The real skill is recognising him when he does come. Let’s all try to cultivate that.
Revd. Phil Bradshaw