" ... but those who wait for the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Last year the dogged determination of Captain Sir Tom Moore, who sadly died on Tuesday, lifted our spirits during the first lockdown and raised millions of pounds for NHS charities. He achieved this by walking. His pace was slow, and he needed the support of a rollator, but his quiet persistence achieved great things.
Today’s reading from Isaiah uses walking as a metaphor for the spiritual life. At first glance it’s an odd piece of writing. The Prophet offers three metaphors to describe how God renews people’s strength – flying, running and walking. It’s the reverse of what we might expect. Surely to “mount up with wings like eagles” is much more impressive and desirable than to “walk and not faint”. Yet flying comes first and walking last. The verse doesn’t appear to build to a climax. Rather it seems to descend into bathos. Yet in ancient Hebrew poetry, sequences of three images such as this one, known as triplets, always placed the best and the most important idea in third place. So Isaiah is saying that being able to “walk and not faint” is the most valuable gift.
For many of us, the life of prayer is like that most of the time, a steady plodding, with only occasional bursts of running and flying. Isaiah is reminding us not to undervalue that quiet persistence and reminding us also of the way in which God can empower us to “walk and not faint”. His words were addressed to a people living in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland and aware that the Temple which had been the focus of their worship was in ruins. They have a resonance for us at a time when it is not possible to gather for worship in church. They also have a broader resonance, for the restrictions and limitations under which we are all living feel like a form of exile, of deprivation and disempowerment. Those feelings must be particularly acute for children and young people, many of whom are used to a range of activities and a richness of experiences far greater than those of us who are of ripe years enjoyed when we were their age. For them, famine has abruptly replaced feasting and that change is having a marked impact on their mental health. Let us keep them in our prayers.
We didn’t choose to be in lockdown, or to be cut off from family and friends. Nevertheless, we may be able to learn from the experiences of fellow Christians who, down the centuries, have voluntarily given up the ties, commitments and pleasures of life in order to draw closer to God. The pioneers of this withdrawal were the men and women in the early Christian centuries who abandoned city living because they saw its variety, richness and complexity as distractions and moved into the Egyptian desert to devote themselves to prayer. These Desert Fathers and Mothers discovered that living a simple life of prayer and attentiveness to God was very difficult. They learned that when you try to live that kind of life, your irritation and anger will focus on the smallest and most trivial things. They experienced frustrations and feelings of depression and they expressed these emotions in colourful language. At this stage in the third of a series of lockdowns most of us have a strong sense of how they felt.
One of them, Abba John, spoke of these negative feelings and thoughts as dangerous wild animals, intent on attacking him. He taught that, just as you would climb a tree in order to escape from danger of that kind, the right thing to do was to climb the tree of prayer. He encouraged younger monks to do exactly what Isaiah recommends, to “wait on God”; to be attentive to God.
Abba John’s was a special calling. Most of us are called to live and work in the world. Yet we also need to “wait on God” and today’s Gospel reminds us that, in doing so, we are following the example set by Jesus. After a day spent healing the sick, we read that
For Jesus the starting point for prayer was the understanding that he was listening to and speaking to a God who loved and affirmed him. His teaching developed Isaiah’s insight that the God
the God whose viewpoint might make human beings seem as insignificant as grasshoppers is also the God who, far from disregarding us, knows us more intimately than we know ourselves and loves us. Today’s Psalm also speaks of the God whose scope is cosmic and whose care extends to all humanity:
God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; and gives to all of them their names.
That verse and today’s reading from Isaiah teach that God is both immanent – involved in creation, accessible in prayer – and also transcendent – the uncreated Creator. The immanence is not obvious. Yet for the believer, God is hiding in plain sight. The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer and poet, put that beautifully.
“For, like a grain of fire
smouldering in the heart
of every living essence
God plants His undivided power
– Buries His thought too vast for worlds
In seeds and roots and blade and flower.”
Merton came to believe that the sickness from which western civilisation suffers arises from an excessive focus on problems and on the search for solutions. The word excessive is important. On Monday I receive the first dose of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, and I am deeply grateful to the scientists who focused on the problem of Covid-19 and who came up with a solution. Problem solving is valuable and important. Merton was making two points. Firstly, to be human sometimes means having problems which cannot be solved. Secondly, he believed that the language of problems and solutions has infected the practice of prayer and that to pray in that way is to set oneself up for disappointment and disillusionment. When Isaiah urged people to “wait on the Lord” he was speaking about being attentive to God and receptive to God’s love, not about seeking the solutions we desire.
It will soon be Lent, a good time to “wait on the Lord”, making use of whatever aids to attentiveness work best, whether that is music, poetry, art, gardening, exercise or the enjoyment of nature. Elsewhere in the book of Isaiah you will find these words:
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
That is the kind of prayer than enables us to walk and not faint.