Anyone with any experience of being an expat or immigrant will know that it’s not easy. Far from what TV programmes such as A Place in the Sun (is that even still on?) will tell you, adjusting to life in a new country comes with its own unique set of challenges, difficulties and frustrations as well as joys. Tasks which would be simple and even mundane in your own country become enormously complicated when you combine a language barrier with bureaucracy. Making friends, establishing a routine, renting a flat and making it habitable, settling into your work – all of these things require time, and anyone who expects them to happen overnight is likely to be disappointed.
Fortunately, the Spanish have a lovely little expression: poco a poco – little by little. I heard these three little words often during my time living and working in Catalonia, from various people. They were a heartening reminder that we can and should expect good things, but that they usually only come incrementally.
It’s much the same with the things of God. When the idea of becoming a nun first occurred to me, providence brought one of the founding sisters of Walsingham Community into my life. She described God as an ‘organic gardener’, meaning that He can and does knock people off their horses when the occasion calls for it, but more often than not He reveals – and accomplishes – His purposes gradually and naturally. The Roman Catholic Church understands this and teaches that salvation is a matter of lifelong co-operation with God’s grace, not merely a box that can be ticked by saying a prayer. Indeed, Benedictine nuns and monks take a vow of conversatio morum, continual conversion of life. With the exception of Our Lady, saints are not born – they are made.
It’s a truth which is written across all of creation and can be particularly seen and felt at this time of year. I love the way anticipation gives way to delight as the first green shoots appear in February and the days slowly warm up before the earth erupts into the glory of May. Would a fully-fledged bird be as lovely without having once been nothing more than a tiny ball of potential encased in shell? Here in England, it is illegal to steal birds’ eggs from nests. No wonder. They are sacred, speaking forth the creative mysteries of God – and redemption.
And the mystery is reflected in our own nature. Ask any artist what they enjoy about their work, and they will tell you that the creative process, the actual act of lovingly and painstakingly crafting a thing of beauty, is just as enjoyable as the end result. Indeed, the finished work would be nowhere near as satisfying without the thinking, dreaming, planning, putting pencil to paper, correcting, shading and colouring. Books have to be written, children have to be raised, journeys have to be undertaken. Bread has to be baked, and who would forego that wonderful smell? Beauty is in becoming. We must resist the urge to fast forward.
It is estimated that the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK is still at least a week away, and it’s only after that that the government will even think about easing the lockdown. Yet a look beyond our own shores will reveal that dawn is breaking over countries whose situation seemed hopeless only a fortnight ago. Already there is talk of shops reopening in Italy and Spaniards returning to work. Life in China appears to be returning to normal. ‘Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning’ (Psalm 30: 5).
Our prayers are being answered and the Great Physician is at work – but, as in so many things, He’s working gradually and in accordance with His own perfect will and timing. He is bringing about His purposes in our own lives and in the lives of those who don’t know Him yet, but it won’t be accomplished in an instant. It is He who makes the sun rise, yet rise it must – it was never meant to be a matter of flicking a switch.
by Lucy Stothard