Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Wisdom of George Eliot (2)

Peter Jeffery as Nicholas Bulstrode
A man who believes in something else than his own greed, has necessarily a conscience or standard to which he more or less adapts himself. Bulstrode's standard had been his serviceableness to God's cause: "I am sinful and nought - a vessel to be consecrated by use - but use me!" - had been the mould into which he had constrained his immense need of being something important and predominating.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

The tyranny of the need for significance

Eliot's scalpel-like writing exposes a second evangelical weakness - our need to feel important disguised as devotion to the service of God. We may be victim of this most when we are young, singing of being 'history-makers', and it is not a bad thing to have aspirations to be greatly used by God and our motives are nearly always mixed. However, through juxtaposing one character with another, Eliot shows that this aspect of the evangelical soul can be little different to the proud, ambitious doctor of the novel who, driven by the need to do something of significance, has gaping blind-spots in his self-knowledge. 

I once heard it said that human motivation can be broken into three categories: the drive for power, the drive for achievement and the drive for 'association' (belonging to a certain group or being linked to certain people we think of as important). For me, achievement is a significant driver and a potential stumbling-stone. The desire to 'get things done' has often blinded me to what the Lord may really want me to do. 

I've often taught Frank Lake's model of healthy living with God, the cycle of grace. God's grace meets us in unconditional acceptance through Christ; this sustains us and makes us strong; in this relationship of love we have significance as children of our Father; this provides us with a platform to confidently 'achieve' in loving submission to Him. This way around the circle is exemplified in Jesus, especially at his baptism.

When the cycle runs the other way round, we spend our time trying to arrive at a sense of our significance through achieving success; we are sustained by success and, as we continue to work hard, achieve and create our sense of significance, we feel accepted. This, however, is a very fragile sense of identity. 

An experience while on retreat showed me that I do not live the cycle the right way round as fully as I thought. When I was invited to meditate on Isaiah 43, I was surprised that the word that spoke most deeply to me was fear: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine." I have never thought of myself as a fearful person, but my fear of oblivion and insignificance was laid bare as I dwelt on the passage.

That night I had a very vivid dream. A bird - something like a pied wagtail, but 2 or 3 times the size - its beak full of insects, looks at me. I move my fingers together inviting it to come, as if I have a tasty grub to offer. Suddenly, it jumps onto my arm, substantial but very light. I jump and it flies away, but I am enchanted by such a close encounter. Of course, I have nothing to offer it - my fingers are empty. And besides, the bird's mouth is already full - it could not have taken anything from my fingers anyway: it was interested in me! And so the Holy Spirit comes to us (without the grubs!). But how can he rest and remain if we are preoccupied about what we have to entice him?

The true heroes of George Eliot's novel are driven by motives other than the striving for significance (even dressed as 'Use me, Lord!'). She concludes Middlemarch with these words:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorics acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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