I have been away for a few days in a part of the world which I am very fond of. I am on the island of Crete which I first visited in 1968. I come here partly to practise my inadequate grasp of the Greek language but also to enjoy the wonderful walks that exist on the island. There is in particular one special walking route which goes from one end of the island to the other. This is partly along the coast and partly over the mountains. I am familiar with some short sections of the coastal part but this year I wanted to experience something of the mountain sections in the middle. You would think that an international walking route would be easy to negotiate. But that has been far from the case. The sheer difficulty of finding the right way across an open mountain landscape is in fact what has inspired these reflections. One help that is provided for the traveller to stay on the proper path, is a system of painting a small orange square on some of the rocks. These are not particularly frequent and yesterday I completely lost the path and found myself the wrong side of a fairly deep valley. Much of my return journey involved being in a sitting position (not very dignified!). Today I had another attempt and succeeded in following the correct path right over the ridge away from the village where I have been staying, called Anogea. In the wild remote valley beyond the ridge I was able to watch no fewer than eleven eagles soaring together above me. This success has made it possible to offer a reflection on the way that a journey like this is a kind of parable of our wandering through the Christian life.
Every time I found one of the orange painted squares on a rock, I experienced a number of emotions. One was relief that I was not going to have to backtrack; another was a sense of triumph that I was still along the right path. The third was a minor frisson of what I can only call joy in that I was being encouraged to think that I was finally getting things right. After the minor disaster of completely losing the path yesterday, I was determined to stick to my newly imposed rule. The rule was that if I did not see an orange square for 100 metres, I would return to where I had last seen one and review the direction I was going in. It will be apparent that there were many other paths going off in every direction from the main one. Some were created by farmers who wanted access to isolated olive trees further up the mountain slope. Some, no doubt, were created by sheep or goats. But there was only one proper route up to the ridge.
It occurred to me in my search for these tiny squares of paint that it was a bit like looking for spiritual encouragement in the journey of living a Christian life. I even fantasised that the painted squares, which was sometimes quite hard to find, were a bit like a prompting of the Holy Spirit. So many Christians visualise the work of the Spirit as being a bit like a blinding revelation of what we should do in life. But it seems to me that the Holy Spirit for most of us is experienced a bit like a slight nudge or touch. Like the yellow squares on the rock, it is just sufficient to tell whether we are on the right road. I reflected on the different ways that these nudges, which we want to identify as coming from the Spirit, come to us. In the first place we may have taken a decision to God in prayer and somehow we have a conviction that we have found the right way forward. A further way to hear the Holy Spirit in our lives maybe is to have someone we can share problems and decisions with. The important thing is to believe that such encouragement and prompting is on offer as long as we are looking for it.
In my further ruminating about the way the we are prompted or nudged by the Holy Spirit through fairly insignificant events, like those blobs of paint, I thought about the task that we have to minister to each other. All of us can be part of the way that the Spirit speaks to other people. Helping other people to hear the Spirit of God is of course an important part of the work of ordained ministry. But of course any Christian can be involved in this kind of service. For myself the most important principle that people need to hear (I don’t want to call it advice as that sounds prescriptive!) is that what God wants from them is first of all to be themselves. Each person needs to be in touch with their inner longings, their passion and their uniqueness. So often, even in a church context, individuals have taken on board a life agenda set for them by others. The sensitive and pastoral counsellor will always be wanting to help an individual to strip off layers of artificiality and falsity which impede them in their task of authentic living. We all have the task of travelling the journey in order to grow spiritually as well as become the person that God wants to be. A piece of wisdom that was given to my wife and me many years ago is one that applies to anyone. The words were: Be yourself so that God can be himself through you.
The Christian journey seems to have two main components. The first is for us to give glory to God by developing all our gifts, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual to the best of our ability. The second part is for us to grow more and more into God, by allowing his Spirit to work in us and through us. Both these elements are summed up in a saying of Irenaeus, the glory of God is seen in a human being fully alive. Many of the scenarios with which we are concerned with in this blog do a great deal to hinder this possibility of full aliveness. The fear that exists in many congregations and the control that is imposed on vulnerable people stop dead the possibility of developing our God-given potentials. It is also hard to see how we can grow close to the angry vindictive God that is preached in so many congregations. Another word for growing closer to God is the word holiness. This sums up the spiritual aspect of our journey. At different speeds and in different ways we are growing closer to what we are meant to be as spiritual beings.
I hope my readers can identify with my sensations of excitement when finding the marks of paint on rocks and can see how it links up with a sense of adventure that comes to us when we feel we are living a life of purpose and direction guided by the Spirit of God. May all of us have that sense that we are on the right path, the path set by God for us to walk on. May we also have his encouragement to keep us on that unique journey and be able to find our way back when we stray.