I had a cousin called John who was a bit of a rake. If he was not genially propping up the bar at the rugby club, he was engaged in a similar exercise at the golf club. He drank too much, smoked incessantly and generally ended up gambling late at night. Even though he was quite well off, he soon fell into debt. His mother did not see him for days on end. She had no idea where he slept, or with whom he slept for that matter. The rest of the family were more concerned for my aunt than for my cousin. He seemed to thrive on his revelry as if the physical effects of his lifestyle by-passed him and were inflicted by some ugly twist of fate on his mother instead. It was a sort of ‘Dorian Gray’ situation, where his mother took the place of his own decaying portrait. Everybody in the family had rows with him. There were frightful scenes, endless flare-ups, and he even came to blows with an uncle of mine on one occasion. I tried with the rest of them but achieved nothing.
When Things Dramatically Changed
We had all given up when things dramatically changed, or so my aunt said. It was almost as if he had a conversion experience, been struck by an angel of light, or something heavy! My aunt did not know what to make of it at first, could not for the life of her find out what had happened. Then after a few weeks, he arrived home with a tiny Korean nurse called Nina whom he met at a party. She was nothing to look at, quite plain in fact, but he was hopelessly in love with her and they had already decided to get married. In normal circumstances, my aunt would have raised all sorts of objections, rational and irrational, but she was so overjoyed at the change that had come over her son, so grateful to the girl for what she had done, that she readily agreed.
A Deep and Lasting Effect on Me
He was a changed man. At the time I was convinced that he was already an alcoholic. I thought his case was hopeless. One thing I am sure of to this day is that he would never have changed his lifestyle on his own. Not only did he stop drinking and gambling, but he also stopped smoking. He had to pay off his debts and then start saving for a mortgage. Rows, arguments, quarrels, could not change him, neither could warnings or threats. Reasoning, appealing to his better nature, pleading for consideration for his mother were a waste of time and achieved nothing. In the end, only one thing succeeded: love. The love of this four-foot-eight, seven-and-a-half-stone Korean nurse, Nina! It is forty years since all this happened; next year will be their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. That incident had a deep and lasting effect on me. I was fascinated by the tremendous power of love in action. I had been convinced that no power either in heaven or earth could have done anything for my cousin.
Everything Suddenly Began to Make Sense
St John said that “God is love and wherever there is love there is God”. It was not just human love that changed John, but God’s love working through Nina. It was this realization that made me understand that we could all be radically changed for the better if we could somehow place ourselves in the way of God’s love, put ourselves under the influence of his creative power, then like John, we could be radically and permanently changed; not superficially, but from our innermost parts. When I began to read the New Testament in earnest, I saw that this is what it is saying time and time again. I was staggered to realise that I never noticed it before. I missed the wood for the trees. I missed the whole point of the Gospel. Everything suddenly began to make sense; the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place once I discovered the central piece.
The story of Jesus is a unique and world-shaking example of what happens to us when we dare to expose ourselves totally to God’s love. It is the story of how we are gradually possessed, and the effect this has on our lives and on the lives of others. Once love of this force and magnitude invaded the life of Jesus, it not only enabled Him to listen to people and care for them but to enter into them, heal and cure them, restore them to wholeness and even raise them from the dead; for there is nothing that can resist the power of uncreated love, not even death.
The Message is Always the Same
The more I tried to steep myself in the Scriptures, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and in the most ancient and hallowed traditions of Christian spirituality, the more clearly I came to see that the message was always the same. The burning question was not firstly how do we love God, but how do we welcome God’s love into our lives? How do we best position ourselves to be the recipients of that love? Once we get this right, everything else falls into place, as it did for John. I began to see with ever-greater clarity that Jesus did not primarily come to detail the way we ought to love God and our neighbour, He came to give us the power to do it. Without the power to do it, we can read the Bible till we are blue in the face and say, “how beautiful, how uplifting”, but no moral code however well-reasoned, however lofty, however, sublime will ever permanently change a person, but love can! God’s love certainly will, if it is only given a chance.
The ‘Tough Guy’ Approach Leads to Failure
I know most people would agree with me in theory, but in practice, most people act quite differently, because without them realizing it they are in fact Semi-Pelagians. What I mean to say is we think we can change ourselves and direct the course of our spiritual growth by dint of our own muscle-power and dogged endurance, but we cannot. It does not matter how hard we try, how optimistically we flex our mental muscles or clench our fists, failure is only a matter of time. In this enterprise, the ‘tough guy’ approach inevitably leads to failure. The exceptionally stubborn might push things to the limit before they finally crack up in a fit of depression, self-pity, and despair, but the majority settle for a compromise. They sense failure before it comes and tactfully avoids the humiliation of facing their own weakness by lowering their ideals and putting off until tomorrow the steps they feel are necessary to attain them. They reassure their guilty consciences with dreams of tomorrow’s fresh start when they will begin again in earnest to take themselves in hand and get down to the serious business of pulling themselves together.
What the Gospel Says Loud and Clear
It seems to me that the Gospel says loud and clear, time and time again, “You can’t, but I can – if you’ll only let me.” If Nina’s love could turn John’s life upside down, what could God’s love do to ours? God’s love will automatically grow and develop in us like a seed. It will ultimately extend to every part of our being until it completely possesses us. It is only in prayer that we come into contact with the love of God and begin to experience it entering into our lives. Nobody can experience being loved and remain the same. This is why St Teresa of Avila said – “There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray and if anyone points in another direction they are deceiving you.”
For New Year I introduced the resolution to end all resolutions because most of us spend our lives making endless resolutions that we never keep. Just make one, that if kept will totally change your life. The theory is simple. We are all weak, so even if we do manage to keep an odd resolution here and there throughout our lives, we will never manage to keep them all, never mind conquer the sins that continually topple us. So, make just one resolution, and that is to turn and open yourself to receive God’s love that is always available to you every day of your life. Then your life and the life of your family will be changed irrevocably for the better too. The reason is simply this, ‘All things are possible with love that are quite impossible without it’ (Matthew 19:26).
The Resolution to End all Resolutions
Once again, here is the principle. Do not give up anything you like or enjoy, unless it prevents you from giving some quality space and time each day for God in prayer. There is nothing more important than trying to surcharge your own limited love with his unlimited love each day. Prayer is but the traditional word used to describe how we go about doing this. The more you come to know and experience this love then, without realising it all those things that you once thought you could never live without, simply fade away. If this can happen in human love when the love of another can totally absorb you to the exclusion of all else, how much can this happen in divine love? The quest for this love, however, can only begin when we sincerely seek and find the daily time to receive it in prayer beginning each day with the morning offering to consecrate all we say and do each day to God. Then find some time, someplace, if only for ten minutes each day to reflect on the love of God that never ceases pouring out to possess us. Re-read the Gospels slowly and prayerfully. Just a few verses each day from St John’s Gospel will fill you once more with the joy of realising how the Jesus who once lived is alive and loving now with the only love that can not only permanently change our lives for the better but make us more and more like him, as the same love that possessed him begins to possess us now.
In his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) said that happiness is the byproduct of absorption. The more we become absorbed in the love of God through profound meditation that gradually enables us to share in the contemplation of our Risen Lord, then the happier and the stronger we will become to do all things even the impossible. One single resolution then will enable us to keep all resolutions. If you have still not made one, now is the time to make this one that if kept will radically change your life and change it permanently for the better.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love