I was so sorry to hear that my boyhood hero died recently. His name was Roger Bannister, or Sir Roger Bannister as he became later. I had seen him run several times, but sadly I wasn’t present to see him break the record by becoming the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. When I did see the event on the news I was thrilled to see him fall into the arms of his coach Franz Stampfl as he broke the tape. Franz was one of the world’s leading athletic coaches of the twentieth century. He was simply a genius who trained over three hundred and sixty Olympians. He was my coach too because our sports master invited him to be our athletic coach. It was from him that I learnt far more than mere athletics. Although I did not realise it at the time, what I learnt from him was to help me immensely in my spiritual life later.
True Christians are Like Athletes
St. Paul likens Christians to athletes who spend their time building up their spiritual muscles through daily exercise, just as athletes spend their time building up their physical muscles. That is why the word asceticism comes from the Greek word for an athlete. There can be no successful Christian life without an ascetical life, so what I learned from Franz Stampfl was to be of immense value to me in the future. The first thing that I learnt from Franz was that if something is really important to you, you will find the time for it. If you do not, or you cannot, it just means that despite what you may say it is of no consequence to you. He used to say that if you are unwilling to find the consistent and daily time for athletics then please do not waste his time, because you are going nowhere. I can understand someone saying that athletics or sport is of no consequence to them, but how can a human being say that love and loving is of no consequence to them?
Life without love is not only purposeless, it is dry, drab, boring, colourless and ultimately worthless. If love is offered to you everything else must take second place or you will miss out on the most important thing in life, and that is what is offered to anyone who wants to take their spiritual life seriously.
Life is for Love, Not Rugby Football
When I was a young man my cousin, James told me that his girlfriend suddenly dropped him. It seemed she did not love him anymore. When I tried to discover the reasons why I found that all his Saturdays were taken up with playing rugby and his Sundays recovering from his efforts. For the same reason, he liked to take Monday evening off, sitting in front of the television. On Wednesdays, he went to the gym to start getting back into shape again, and on Thursday evening he liked to treat himself to a night at the cinema. Apparently, she rarely came, because she did not like westerns or war films! Friday night was taken up with pre-match training and of course, Saturday was match day, and although she sometimes came to watch him, she rarely saw him for long in the evenings because he was usually detained in the bar with his mates, especially after away games. That only left Tuesday night, and one night a week is simply not enough.
If someone loves you and you genuinely love them, then you must have time together to give and receive what is more important than anything else on earth. It is the same with the love of God. Without daily quality time for God in prayer, we simply cannot receive the only love that can permanently change us for the better. My cousin saw the error of his ways and now he has been happily married for fifty years. God is loving us continually, but if we do not find time for the prayer where we learn how to receive his love then we will get nowhere, nowhere that is, that really matters.
Christianity is Firstly a Mysticism not a Moralism
The spiritual life seems to have become so complicated over the years that you almost feel you need a couple of degrees in theology just to understand it before you can even attempt to live it! Yet it is essentially simple, so simple that you need the simplicity of a little child to see it. There is only one thing that is necessary and that is love. Not our love of God, but his love of us. In other words, Christianity is firstly a mysticism, not amoralism. It is not primarily concerned with detailing the perfect moral behaviour that we see embodied in Christ’s life and then trying to copy it, virtue by virtue in our lives – that is stoicism, not Christianity, and it is doomed to failure.
Christianity is primarily concerned with teaching us how to turn and open ourselves to receive the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus. The more we are filled with his love then the easier it is to return that love in kind, as the divine suffuses and then surcharges human love so that it can reach up to God and out to others. Then, and only then are we able to love God with our whole hearts and minds and with our whole beings and to love our neighbour as Christ loves us.
Read Forwards not Backwards
The trouble is we make the same mistake with Christ’s life as we do with the saints. We read their lives backwards. We read about their rigorous asceticism, their superhuman sacrifices, and their heroic virtues, and believe that the only way we can be like them is to do likewise. If we only read their lives forward instead of backwards then we would see that they were only capable of doing the seemingly impossible, because they firstly received the power to do it in prayer. If we try to be and do what they did without first receiving what they received in prayer, then our brave attempts will inevitably end in disaster. True imitation of Christ or any of his saints means firstly copying the way they did all in their power to receive the Holy Spirit who inspired and strengthened them with his love, to do what is impossible without it. That is essentially all we have to do. That is why the spiritual life is so simple if only we had the simplicity of a little child to see it.
Asceticism Made Easy
Ascetism for a beginner is quite simple: – Don’t give up anything you like or enjoy except when it prevents you from giving quality space and time to God in prayer each day. If you think it is too easy then try it and stick to it and you will soon find it is not quite as easy as you thought. So do not let first enthusiasm fool you into heroics that you will never sustain. When you have persevered for long enough you will gradually begin to receive and then experience the love that will enable you to do what is quite impossible without it.
When a person falls in love and begins to experience being loved, then there is nothing that they would not do, nor any sacrifice that they would not make for their lover. In fact, they positively look for things to do, the harder and the more exacting the better, to enable them to show the real quality of their love. What was impossible to a self-centred egotist only a short time before becomes not only easier but also their greatest pleasure. It is exactly the same in the spiritual life. The exemplary behaviour, the extraordinary self-discipline and the heroic sacrifices made by a person who begins to experience the love of God are not the rresults of an arrogant stoic trying to make themselves perfect. They are the actions of someone desperate to express their love in behaviour that could not be maintained for long without the love that sustains it. All the little pleasures and pastimes that were thought indispensable before, suddenly become dispensable, and with the greatest of ease.
First Things First
Virtues that were noticeable by their absence before, are born of the love in which they are contained and communicated to those open to receive them. This happens when the love of God strikes a human heart. It strikes it as a simple ray of light strikes a prism. Then just as that light is then diffused and transformed into all the colours of the rainbow, so the love of God is diffused and transformed into all the virtues and gifts that are needed to live and love as Christ himself did. This happens automatically, as the love of God suffuses our own imperfect love, making it possible for us to love God in return and the neighbour in need, in all that we say and do. In short, first seek God and his Kingdom which is love, and everything else you want or desire will be given to you.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics