(Lead me) increasingly,
Saint Augustine of Hippo begins his Confessions with the observation:
“Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
— Confessions, i. 1.
We are made such that we will spend our lives longing for a respite from everything in us that leads to agitation, disquiet, and fretfulness. Augustine reminds us that when we attempt to find a solution for our hunger in one another or with any other thing in all creation, we will be left with a longing for something that can only be supplied by God. Speaking for myself, I find this observation from the pen of Augustine to be accurate. Many of the moments when I turned again to God in order to be with God and God alone have been prompted by a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with myself, my life, my work, et cetera. I was drawn back to my relationship with God having exhausted many other lesser pursuits which left me with an abiding sense that something was “off” — that my way of being in the world was not authentic in some fundamental way.
When pilgrims pray that God lead us “increasingly” we are asking that God stir up in us that sense of dissatisfaction which will lead us back to the one relationship which defines and governs all our other relationships. We want to be increasingly living our life with the objects and manners of our hearts in harmony with the heart of Christ.
And there is more. We ask that God lead us increasingly so that we are dissuaded from practicing our faith in ways that are self-referential and self-serving. We ask that God lead so that we learn to refuse to let our ego lead our lives. John the Baptizer provides an illustration of this. His disciples report to him in the gospel according to John chapter 3 that Jesus has begun to baptize. They are jealous for John’s sake that Jesus has now begun to draw larger crowds than John. To which John replies:
28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
He understands his true identity as the “friend” of the bridegroom. His heart rejoices at the news of Jesus’ success because he understands that for the world to be rightly organized, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” We do well to learn from John to be earnest in our love and care for others, while at the same time making certain that we keep the focus on the one who truly has the capacity to save. A few years ago I was sitting in on a bible-study at a large church. The senior pastor was leading and after a few minutes one of his parishioners said, “I am so glad you are my pastor, this church really needs you!” The pastor was gracious in not criticizing the remark, but went on to explain that what both the church and he needed was Christ. It was his gentle way of following in the path of John the Baptizer because this pastor knew that Christ must increase, and he must decrease in order for the whole church community to be healthy.
Finally, there is an economic aspect of this. Many of us in North America struggle to be rid of the habits of our affluent culture. Affluence teaches us that when our “box” is full, we need another box or a bigger box. So we purchase bigger and bigger homes and we stuff them with boxes of lightly or never-used things because we assume that life is defined by what we buy and what we create. These habits gravitate to our waste-lines too, with many of us increasing all the time. But the life of Christ — the one who we follow on the journey of Lent — stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of the affluent. He lives very simply. Perhaps part of our journey to become his true-disciples is to explore how our lives might be enriched if we made due with less.
Lord of the harvest: you remind us each year about the ways that a seed sown in the field yields thirty, sixty, or even a hundredfold (Matt 13). The increase comes through simple and self-sacrificial behaviors. Help us, who are so restless, to let you increase as we decrease. Teach us the joys of a more simple faith; a more simple life; and grant to us your deep and life-giving rest. In the name of the one who came to offer us restful sleep and peace at the last, Jesus our Lord. Amen