BBC World Service Talk
B.B.C. World Service December, 1985
I am going to end this series of talks about my journey from atheism to Christian belief by saying something about those times when faith in God fades almost to vanishing point. We all know them. What do we do then? Well, I know what I do all too often, I turn on the TV, do the crossword, have a drink, read a book, think of something else, or immerse myself in work; and all these ways of coping work fairly well for a time with the possible exception of self-immersion in a flurry of activity. Of course, this too works splendidly as an opiate for a time but, like other drugs, it can become a habit and a substitute for both vision and faith; and then the work produced becomes more and more sterile. In my less charitable moments, I sometimes wonder whether the activism of today’s Church, committed to everything except quietness, may not be a symptom of a lack of faith buried under a feverish programme of missions and campaigns. Be that as it may, I doubt whether activism has ever been a very good way of filling the gap left when God seems to go absent without leave from us for a time, which he does much more often than we care to admit, and as Job knew in his own day. ‘Behold I go forward,’ he cried, ‘but he is not there, and backward but I cannot perceive him.’ All the saints, too, have spoken of passing through the wilderness – the place where men get lost and God seems to have deserted them. But it was a poet who first underlined the paradox that even though the wilderness is the place where the vision of God fades, it can also be the place where vision is born. ‘Blessed is the man who going through the vale of misery uses it for a well.’ sang a Psalmist centuries ago, and he was right. The true wilderness is inside ourselves. We all carry one around. But what do we do when we get lost in it is the 64,000 dollar question.
What we should do is wait. ‘Watch and pray’ said Christ to his disciples, ‘for ye know not when the master of the house cometh.’ God is the master of the house; I am that house – and so is each of us – and the initiative in his advent to us is his not ours; he does the coming. As he came unto his own, 2,000 years ago, so he comes to his own now too, if only we will wait upon his coming – his advent – and this waiting is what prayer is all about really. Solitary, silent, and often in spiritual darkness, saints, mystics and hermits have known all about it; but it should not be confined to them. On the contrary, everyone should practise it, if only because it is the most basic way of exploring the hidden depth and latent possibilities of our own human being: a voyage in search of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world,’ which is in everyone.
It is at that still point too that, if we will allow it, prayer blossoms from time to time like a flower in the darkness, moments of illumination come and go, and we experience sudden encounters with something or someone other than ourselves; but only if we will allow it to happen. If we leave this kind of prayer to monks and nuns, and leave too the depths of our God-given humanity unexplored, one day, battered by despair or grief we shall be driven down into the darkness inside ourselves and arrive there as strangers. Frightened and ill at ease like aliens in a strange country, we shall not know our way about nor how to speak the language; yet here all our fresh springs rise into the mountain of God, in whose image we have been made, and if only we knew where these springs were and how to drink of them, like the Psalmist, we could pass through the vale of misery and use it for a well.
We all need guides if we are to pass through our deserts; some take psychologists like Jung and some take eastern gurus; but the sovereign guide is Christ, and if we want to find God again, when we seem to have lost him, we could do much worse than to listen to the command he gave to his sleeping disciples, when he himself prepared for his last battle and descent into hell. ‘Could ye not watch with me one hour?’ he said as they dozed the world’s crisis away in a half-life of faithlessness and fear and bewilderment. ‘Watch and pray.’