On the pilgrim way: “Making comparisons is full of spiritual pitfalls”
‘I become consumed with guilt when comparing my life with refugees’
In September, we spent two glorious weeks on the rural canals of Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Each morning, I got warmly dressed and, armed with a mug of tea, sat out in the prow of the boat, revelling in the early autumn beauty around me. As the days passed, I felt as if I was in a bubble of happiness. It came to me that I had every blessing anyone could wish for: The beauty of nature, love and companionship, food and shelter, books, time, sufficient health… And yet, we had embarked on another canal boat holiday with (at least on my part) some misgivings, as Kees’ health was not nearly as good as in past years. For the first few days, I made comparisons with previous times and felt sad – but gradually, present blessings began to fill my thoughts and I felt truly happy.
Back home, it is not possible to preserve that bubble of happiness – making no comparisons with the lives of others, or with our own past times. Yet, making comparisons is full of spiritual pitfalls. I can easily become consumed with guilt when I compare my comfortable life with that of the refugees on the Hungarian or German border, or feel embarrassed by my health and energy in the presence of a friend whose days are now numbered. I can become envious when I see couples who can still do a good day’s walk together, or whose children live nearby.
The grace I now need to receive from God is the grace to admire, without making comparisons; to feel compassion, without bringing myself into it; to accept thankfully the blessings I have been given, without looking over my shoulder at what others have or have not been given; and to accept in humble trust any sufferings which come my way. Rather a large ask – and, is it the right ask?
On holiday, we both read the memoir of an Irish Presbyterian missionary, Mamie Johnston, who worked in rural China from 1923 to 1951. For the first 10 years, Johnston seems to have enjoyed herself and achieved great things: Teaching, preaching, building up the local leadership. Then the Japanese came and times were hard but she and the church took great delight in working round them – being “wise as serpents”. When the Communists came, times got even harder. She noted, admiringly, that the Chinese Christians did not seem to pray for safety or even peace, but always for wisdom and courage. That sounds less self-regarding than my list, and perhaps would cover all my needs.
When Mamie finally managed to leave China – after most westerners had left – she was hounded, starved and imprisoned on the long journey down the Yangtze river – her “way of the Cross”. The crucial gift she received from God in those last days of her mission to the Chinese was deliverance from fear. To be added to my list!
Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Reform.