There is an ancient wisdom saying that goes “Nature never hurries, yet everything is accomplished.” Indeed when we look at the natural world, everything follows the steady beat of the rhythm that God has given to them. Seeds don’t rush to take root, saplings don’t rush to bear fruit, and the animal kingdom goes about with each creature abiding the laws given to its nature. In nature, as long as there is adequate nourishment and a suitable environment, creatures thrive – for that is what God created them to do – THRIVE. We too are meant to thrive and we give God the greatest glory when we are most fully alive (as St. Ireneaus famously said).
So why is it that so many of us who are expending great effort in being disciples are becoming increasingly burnt out instead of thriving? Why is it that our involvement in ministries and communities can sometimes seem to close our heart off to the larger world instead of increasing our capacity to love the world we are sent to evangelise? Why is it that the most committed among us to the Kingdom can become so disillusioned and frustrated at the lack of progress in our projects? Could it be that in our zeal we have begun to expect God’s Kingdom to march to our pace instead of the rhythm set by God?
I have seen such a scenario happen many times: A person has an encounter which converts her. She becomes convicted about becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and sets about learning as much as she can about what it means to be a disciple. She strives to pray harder and longer than before, to serve in ministries for longer hours and begin saying ‘yes’ to more requests for help because she believes that is what disciples do. In her zeal, she also attempts to evangelise all who are around her and, if she is a leader of a ministry or community, sets about trying to get the others to “see” what she has seen. Weeks turn to months and months into years, and soon her initial optimism and hope begin to wane. She finds herself increasingly critical of how others are not living up to discipleship, and in her own life she struggles with the expectations she has put upon herself in the name of discipleship. Soon, when consolations dissipate, she finds herself unable to pray with the rigour she had started with, and to her consternation she finds that she still struggles with the same temptations and sins as before. In time, even though this person may still be actively involved in ministry, her interior life begins to shrivel, and perhaps even die. If she is fortunate, someone further along the interior journey may reach out to her and help her to rebuild her relationship with Christ on more steady ground. But in a spiritual culture where “working hard for Christ” is idealised, it is likely that such a person may choose to become ever more immersed in doing good work instead of tuning in to the work that God wants to do in her. Our parishes and communities have many such a person – do we see them and hear their silent cry for help? Or are we ourselves too caught up in our busyness of proving that we are disciples to attend to them?
What would happen to a young child if his parents constantly expected him to be able to act and behave like an adult instead of allowing him to be a child? Could he develop healthily? How would such a child be likely to raise his own children in future? We can understand that biological growth takes time and that it has various stages that must be honoured. Yet we often forget that growth in the spiritual realm takes time too. It is a wonderful thing to read about the saints and to harken to the words of the Gospel, and to aspire to the highest levels of discipleship. BUT we must remember that while it is important to be clear about what spiritual maturity looks like, we need to honour where we are right now and not expect ourselves or others to be further on from where we actually are. Doing so would only harm our interior growth and make us live inauthentic lives.
Are we searching for quick fixes to bushwhack people into disciples? Do we pressure those who are barely (or not even) disciples to do the work of apostles? Out of the best intentions, I am afraid that is exactly what we end up doing when we do not have the patience to let God’s presence unfurl in our souls in His time. Ironically, it is when we learn how to hold ourselves and others gently in compassion and love that great spiritual growth happens for love is the rich soil in which souls need to plant their roots in order to grow strong and – eventually – be fruitful.
How do we love patiently and wisely without compromising on the demanding Truth of the Gospel? This great “both and” is how Christ loved sinners. He was urgent in proclaiming the Truth, but he always loved first. His love has demands on those who choose to follow Him, but he never meant for us to live up to his call with our own strength. We are meant to draw on the love we have received from God, and thus our strength, and our fruitfulness, lie in the extent to which we have been able to receive and be rooted in that love. This takes time and cannot be hurried. An acorn does not grow into a great oak overnight. But when nature has taken its course, that little acorn matures into a majestic tree that provides shade and shelter for many other creatures. So it is with our spiritual growth.
Those of us who desire to be disciples and apostles of Christ need above all to let ourselves be creatures and to learn this valuable lesson from the other creatures on earth – it is not by our powers that any of us can grow to fullness in Christ. We cannot pressure anyone to grow faster or to bear fruit before God’s time. What we can do is to love them, and to learn what Pope Francis calls the art of accompaniment so that we know how best to support each person according to where they are in their journey. Let us let go of the need to see fruit quickly for that can keep us focused on how successful we are in our ministry instead of on Christ. Let us focus instead on loving Christ in our neighbour and let God bring forth fruit according to HIS schedule.