September 27 2020
The Spirit is Willing.
Today’s homily is an attempt to understand my own reluctance to give money to people begging on the streets. It is a problem I have encountered time and time again and have never resolved. I wondered if you also might have encountered this kind of difficulty? Here it is encapsulated for us in his reading “Passing By” by Rev Cliff Reed:
Outside Euston Station, London…
I passed a beggar in the street. I didn’t pause. I walked straight on with gaze averted.
But I had seen her sitting there – pale, dejected, helpless; heard her mumbled request.
I rationalized: she wants the money for drink or drugs; she gets social security; she doesn’t really need my change.
I heard another voice [from the scripture]– “Whatever you did for the least of these [you did for me]. But still I passed by – again.
“The spirit is willing , but the flesh is weak,” words spoken by Jesus of the slumbering disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. It has become an axiomatic expression of our recognition that our human condition is broadly made up of two natures, and that they are often at odds.
The two sides of our nature are the fleshly, or physical, and the spiritual. We all have a side to us which responds first and foremost to our instincts, and we have a side which is conscious of our higher aspirations.
For the most part, we allow these two natures to each have its own independent existence, and often feel disinclined to interfere between them (rather like not wishing to interfere in a neighbourly dispute) despite the discord and lack of harmony which can result. As a consequence, a whole course of life may be more determined by circumstances and inclination, rather than by moral judgement or conscience.
We are always likely to give way to temptations of the moment, if we are not familiar with how we are going to react inside. To state the obvious, the weaknesses of the flesh show themselves when the interior rule of life, the spiritual, is ignored.
I do not think anybody is often taken completely by surprise by their weaknesses. Most of us are very well aware of them. But sometimes when we desire to do the right thing, we can’t always exert the power demanded of us. To paraphrase St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans ch 7: “The good that we would, we do not; the evil that we would not, that we do.”
Equally, we all know the impulses to good we feel inside, bidding us to do right. In the view of some, such inner promptings do not come from ourselves, but from a higher source. Again as St Paul expressed it: “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who worketh in you.”
According to this way of understanding, when we are prompted to be generous and kind, that impulse does not arise from within ourselves, and it is a mistake to think that by denying it, we are only denying ourselves. When the impulse is upon us to be generous and kind, we are experiencing something from beyond ourselves, calling for some kind of action.
When that happens, it is incumbent upon us to consider properly the effort and the cost involved to carry out the kindly impulse. We have to be spiritually thoughtful (if I can express it like that), and distinguish between the willingness of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh. It may be necessary on occasion to admit that the means at our disposal are insufficient to carry out the kindly impulse.
The willing spirit within us is sometimes betrayed when we do not take sufficient account of the difficulties which lie between the impulse and the weakness of our sense of purpose. We may fail to act because we had not considered the unexpected resistance within ourselves, which rises up the moment action has to be performed.
We need to know ourselves – the ancient wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi – we need to know what we are capable of, and undertake the things which we have a chance of seeing through. Our strengths and our weaknesses should be seen for what they are, and our personal feelings recognised.
I have been reminded recently in my reading that many men and women eventually consider themselves to be failures. I think of John Keats, one of the greatest English poets, who died tragically young. Not long before he died he said to a friend that he had had such great aspirations, but “in all my life I have done nothing either great or good.” He had already written immortal poetry, and yet considered himself a failure.
And it is not only the famous. Individuals whom many would consider to have been entirely successful with money, family and achievements behind them, are often found to be self-dissatisfied, and in some measure I think this applies to all of us: I certainly apply it to myself when I fail to react as generously as I know I should.
But we need not despair. From Jesus of Nazareth, St Paul, and a host of other servants of God, we may learn an abiding truth: that God perfects his strength in our weakness, and that his grace and spirit are sufficient for us all. Amen.
A concluding reflection adapted from Rev Cliff Reed:
“The world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build a house on it.”
… On our journey we cross the bridge, and though we may linger, we cannot stay.
The bridge carries many passengers… It is an ever-changing cavalcade that crosses over.
Each of us is engaged on our own journey. No two are quite the same. Yet the bridge has but one beginning and one end, and these we share.
The bridge is graceful, bathed in the light of sun and moon and stars. From its wide span we see a rich landscape….
The bridge is not ours. Others will follow. We must leave it clear, uncluttered and strong for them.
The bridge is wide enough for us all. We must travel as fellow pilgrims, sharing our stories, helping each other, admiring the view…
We cannot live on this bridge for ever. Even if we try to build here, we must still move on….
Let us accept the journey in faith and hope, travel together in peace and joy, and know that – for all our differences – we are but one company. Amen.