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The Slow Work of God

By Revd Phil Wales

The prayer of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin begins, ‘Above all, trust in the slow work of God.’

This prayer, and these words, seem especially relevant at a time when we are all adjusting to a new way of life.  A new way of life which requires everyone to pay full attention to the deadly effects of Covid-19. Though it is true, right now, that there are many unexpected opportunities to discover more of the wonders of God’s creation, there is also a great deal to lament. So many have become ill or have died.  And many more will yet.

It is understandable, given the risks, that we are on a heightened state of alert. Yet, this can create fear which, in turn, means we may fail to be open to trust in the slow work of God. I have noticed in recent weeks how some of the new language in circulation generates impatience in me and pulls me further away from reflecting on what it means to continue to trust in this slow work. ‘Social’ distancing is necessary. However, keeping a safe distance need not mean that we avoid all eye contact or the usual pleasantries that pass between strangers when taking our daily exercise or shopping. Retreating inwardly may unintentionally amplify a sense of isolation and fear. This is precisely why some people now advocate the term ‘physical distancing’ as a more accurate description of what it is that we are being asked to do.

We are soon to begin moving from the initial phase of our response to the second, the easing of restrictions. This phase will need to be negotiated carefully if we are to avoid a second wave of the epidemic. Of course, we do not know what the end of this second phase will look like or when we might reach it. Initially, hurriedly, some put their faith in the idea of a ‘bounce back’ as a remedy to the fear of living with potentially overwhelming uncertainty. But, placing hope in this cheery, breezy description of the world after coronavirus now seems misplaced. Talk of ‘bouncing back’ may sound glib, distasteful, or even offensive to those whose lives have been profoundly changed in recent weeks.

Historian Peter Hennessey has sought to emphasise the magnitude of our predicament by describing the world as ‘pre and post’ coronavirus.  But his deft, and perhaps intentionally provocative, use of the abbreviations ‘BC’ (Before Coronavirus) and ‘AC’ (After Coronavirus) still points towards a person-centred, rather than God-centred, perspective. It seems to me that in searching for better descriptions we may still end up racing towards ones which are born from a desire for premature certainty.

Living with so much uncertainty may well push us to search for new language to make sense of these times. But we should not rush headlong towards the first, second or third idea that attracts our attention and embrace it unthinkingly. Instead we must own, rather than deny, our impatience to get to the end. And then, having owned our impatience, we still need to resist the impulse to rush headlong towards it. Instead we need to return to, and go with, the slow work of God.


The prayer of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability –
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.