The Discontents of Empire (I)

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and why do you labour for that which does not satisfy?
Isaiah 55.2

BusyIn the recent months I have found myself working more, and praying and writing less. I have wondered at the reasons. Several occur to me:

  • I’m anxious about money;
  • I have accepted more work than I really want;
  • I fear to decline invitations in case people start to bypass or discount me;
  • I am drawn into servicing my “brand”;
  • I am surrounded by people working their socks off in ‘proper jobs’ and I feel shame in comparison; and, as ever,
  • I am a master at avoiding the fear and delight of prayer, silence, and solitude.

Many of us spend our lives working and playing at full-tilt. We think we’re living out loud, but in truth we’re barely able to breathe: never finding time to share a beer with a friend or walk in the winter sunshine; filling the evenings with the manufactured, mass-produced, plastic pleasures of so-called ‘entertainment’; never able to do nothing; never believing that we are enough already.

We cannot stop. There is too much to do, a never-ending feed of posts, films, shows, books, articles, and episodes to keep up with that we fear to miss, an overwhelming litany of what is wrong with the world, and the relentless stream of emails, messages, meetings, and items on our to-do lists. How dare we slow down when there is so much left to do and to experience? What if we were to die with our in-trays still over-flowing and our bucket-list still half-full? It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

So much for ‘work-life balance’.

In such a life, it is hard to find time for God. Prayer can become one more thing to be addressed in an already over-full day, another item to add to the to-do list that is as long as your arm. This is no good. Prayer must not become like this. Prayer, like any relationship with someone we love, should be a joy (with a reverential nod to the reality that relationships involve struggle, the struggle between individuation, intimacy, and surrender—including the relationship with God).

Is there time for God, for prayer, in a busy life? Of course the answer is, “Yes.” As I hope you will have heard me say time and again, you do not have to go anywhere or do anything special to find God. God is not elsewhere. God is in your heart, in your guts, in those around you, and in your surroundings:

  • a moment of gratitude
  • a glimpse of the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars
  • a kind word or deed
  • a feeling of love
  • a touch of kindness
  • a fleeting beautiful or surprising thought—the leading edge of creativity
  • compassion offered in suffering
  • the first sip of a drink

                Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take
into our vision;
Rilke, Duino Elegy 1, from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke tr. Stephen Mitchell, p.151

The list is endless. With a simple 1° turn of the heart, God is here. Make that turn and recognise that God has been here all along. There, it is done. Even in a busy, busy day, that 1° turn need only take a moment. At the traffic lights, on the train or the tube or the bus, standing in a queue, walking to the station, sitting on the toilet or brushing your teeth: there are pauses in which you can open, if only for a few seconds, to the eternal, infinite mystery of life.

But is it good to live like this? Being able to snatch moments with You in the midst of busyness does not make a busy life a good life, nor does it mean that this is the life that You want for us. A frenetic life does not promote human flourishing. I think we should take a stand against busyness.

Someone who gets up early to go to work and gets home late, who thereby never sees their children, never embraces their lover for more than a passing peck on the cheek, who only snatches a sandwich for lunch, who never hugs a tree, who never indulges in reverie, is someone who is abrogating their responsibility to themselves.

Why do it? Why would you accept this behaviour? Why would you accept this behaviour towards your Eternal Lover? Not that God isn’t infinitely patient. But why would you want to live like this? It is not humane.

I want to be clear here. In the real world, work is enlivening because it is human life in the flow of Divine creativity. I am not decrying a life overflowing with energy and creativity, of movement and curiosity, of song and dance that

… are the result of an excess of energy. When we are normal we talk, when we are dying we whisper, but when there is more in us than we can contain we sing. When we are healthy we walk, when we are decrepit we shuffle, but when we are beyond ourselves with vitality we dance. Where do we get the energy that lets us live beyond ourselves, unself-made, singing and dancing? In you—the place of worship, the place of preaching, the place of prayer, the place of politics.
Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, p.30

Rather, I know how a life can be relentlessly full of getting things done, of doing this task so that I can get on with the next, my attention never fully on this activity because I am only getting it done so I can move on to the next, filling every available space with checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and the TV listings; and in all this never able to enjoy the simple pleasure of doing nothing, of knowing that I am already enough, just as I am, that in the real world there is nothing to prove, no one to appease, and no one to impress.

I am angry that we are so busy that we have to squeeze our relationship with You, with our families, with Life itself into the crumbs of silence, love, and creativity that fall or are snuck from the table of the emperors (cf. Matthew 15:21-28).

I do not want to live like this. And I do not want to be part of a church whose clergy struggle to find time to pray because they are run ragged between their congregation’s demands, expectations from their bishop, the fear of closure because of falling numbers, and their need to justify their lives. I want a church that challenges this disease in our society by what it preaches and by how its ministers live. I want spiritual leaders who attend to God.

Would you trust a spiritual director who was too busy to pray?

The anxious, frenetic lives we lead are driven by systemic forces of greed, power, and fear of fundamental, creaturely insecurity. We have collectively created a society, a culture, and a church that praises us when we are constantly occupied. We are ashamed to do less in case we are thought lazy.

How can we take a stand against this personally and politically? To be honest, I don’t know, but I’m on the lookout for answers.

Prayer is a subversive activity. It involves a more or less open act of defiance against any claim by the current regime.
Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, p.65

All this, of course, is why it is necessary to pray. To stop, to make a space in which, ostensibly, to do nothing, is a direct challenge to the status quo. It is surrendering, if only for a spell, to the reality that it is not we who are in control. It is letting go of holding our lives quite so tightly, so seriously, so that there is a pause in which another Presence may be. If we don’t have times of doing nothing, how will we ever give ourselves the possibility of seeing a different way?

Being busy is an enthralling way to avoid truth.

4 thoughts on “The Discontents of Empire (I)

  1. Hi Julian Im glad that you are writing again ! You say and express important things so well As always thankyou for your recent blog

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