A Solitary Place
01 December 1990

Christ's first recorded sermon expresses the same simplicity. 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe.' Not exactly a wordy programme; simply an invitation to life in all its fullness.

My first seven Christmases were spent with my grandparents at Christ Church, Oxford. Grandfather was archdeacon of the cathedral, and his home was in lovely Tom Quad. Father dressed up each year as Father Christmas, but I did not know it was him coming through the tower gate on Christmas afternoon - he had always gone to 'clean the car'. It's amazing, looking back, that I never questioned this, never for instance asked whether he might not clean the car at some other time. I suppose I was too excited.

The trust of childhood, the magic of Christmas. I love the simplicity of it all - a child coming into the world teaching us that the trust and wonder of childhood can be sustained through life, if we walk the road of obedience to God that he walked.

Christ's first recorded sermon expresses the same simplicity. 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe.' Not exactly a wordy programme; simply an invitation to life in all its fullness.

The ancient Indian scriptures, the Upanishads, say: 'May the stream of my life flow into the river of righteousness.' And Psalm 46: 'There is a river the streams whereof make glad the City of God.' I can be a stream rather than a muddy or stagnant pool. Streams flow, refresh, sparkle -without effort.

Goethe wrote: 'The highest cannot be put into words. It can only be lived.' And Tennyson: 'Where truth was closest words shall fail.' I suggest that if our lives are true, our language will ring true too.

Dorothy Sayers, in The just vengeance has these words, which I've just discovered:

'Say that the guilt is mine: give it to me,
And I will take it away to be crucified. It's all so very much simpler than you think:
Give me the greedy heart and the little creeping treasons,
Give me the proud heart and the blind, obstinate eyes;
Give me the shallow heart, and the vain lust and the folly;
Give me the coward heart and the spiritless refusals;
Give me the confused self that you can do nothing with;
I can do something.'

The No 2 best-seller in the Spanish language, after Don Quixote, is the autobiography of St Theresa of Avila, the 16th century saint. She wrote: 'If the soul will not die to the world, the world itself will kill it.... God gives himself to those who give up everything for him.'

If you watch a great artist or sportsman, you may notice that he or she does the simple things perfectly. I remember one person, in my days as an international rugby player, who was the best passer of the ball I ever saw. He timed his pass so well that the receiver could almost have received it blindfold. There is nothing flashy about that. Spectators will hardly notice it. But it may mean an opening for the other player. For that reason, I put him top of all the people I played with.

Being simply all out for God does not make us fanatical or overbusy, but there is a danger. St Vincent de Paul warns: 'The devil has a trick of urging good servants to do more than they can, so that they maybe unfitted to do anything.' Yet all-outness can make us unselfish and give us the sanity that comes when we are not in the centre of our lives.

But there is one condition. It is best expressed for me in the first chapter of Mark's gospel. It describes a normal day in Christ's life - synagogue in the morning, a visit to friends in the afternoon, and open house in the evening, each with a view to helping and healing people. Verse 35 describes what happened next morning: 'Rising up a great while before day he went out and departed into a solitary place and there prayed.'

What is the equivalent for us? Rising earlier to have an unhurried time to be led and fed and filled by the spirit of God could also fill us with that sense of wonder which is Christmas.

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