I told a couple friends over dinner recently that for a full two weeks after I’d returned from Tuscany, I felt like I was floating. I was so completely transformed, it was like I was an entirely new person. I felt buoyant, free, and unburdened in every way, and it seemed it would last forever.
It didn’t. Shocker, right?
What happened is that as I came down from the high that had carried me light and free from the wheat fields of Tuscany to the corn fields of Nebraska, I began to worry.
I worried that what God and I had begun under the Tuscan sun would not continue in my everyday ordinary life in Nebraska.
I worried that the invitation into relationship and intimacy I’d answered in Italy would fade away, obliterated bit by bit by laundry, to-do lists, deadlines, dusting, doctor’s appointments, until nothing but a faint memory, like a faded image in an antique mirror, remained.
Truth be told, I felt a little panicky, desperately clenching tight-fisted to the thread of hope that had been woven into my heart.
I didn’t trust my ability to keep the spark God had ignited in my heart alive and flourishing.
More importantly, I didn’t trust that God would continue to fan that spark into an enduring flame.
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ returns.” (Philippians 1:6)
Seventeen days after I returned from Italy I read these words on an airplane as we winged our way from Nebraska to New England to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. I’ve read this verse many times in the past few years, and I’ve always interpreted it the same way: as a promise related to my vocation as a writer.
This time, though, these familiar words stopped me short. This time I read them as God’s promise to continue the deep, transformative work he began in me in Italy.
The truth is, the responsibility of spiritual transformation isn’t all mine, and it’s a bit arrogant of me to assume it is. God himself extended the invitation into intimacy. God himself ignited the spark in my heart. And God himself, who began that good work within me, will continue his work right here in Nebraska, and in all the places I find myself from now until the end of my time on earth.
I needn’t clench that promise tight-fisted in fear that it will all disappear. God is in control of this process. It’s his work. He is the Inviter. He is the Igniter. And he can be trusted not only to continue, but to finish what he begins.
Of course, this isn’t to imply we don’t have a role in the continuation of his good work. The entire responsibility of the transformation isn’t ours, but we do have an important part to play.
Later in the afternoon of the same day I’d turned my insides out during our group sharing time, one of my travel companions and I walked side-by-side to the bus. Our group was leaving for an excursion, and though I don’t recall now where we went that afternoon, I do remember what Chad said to me as we walked across the gravel parking lot. He thanked me for sharing so honestly and openly that morning, and then he urged me to continue the contemplative practice I’d begun a few months before in Nebraska.
“Keeping walking the dog and sitting on that bench,” Chad said, as we boarded the bus.
I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but Chad’s advice, I see now, is key. Quieting ourselves and listening are an important part of spiritual transformation. True, God can continue the good work he began without our help, but Chad’s words helped me see that we will understand God’s work much more deeply if we participate in the process by listening.
As I mentioned in my earlier post about Italy, God had been quietly speaking to me during those dog walks and those minutes I sat alone on the park bench. He’d been prompting me with important questions about intimacy – questions I hadn’t wanted to hear or heed, but important questions nonetheless. His good work in me had begun long before I set my feet on Tuscan soil; I simply became aware of it there.
It’s not easy to convince myself to sit still, in the quiet, without a podcast or Voxer in my ears or my to-do list swirling round in my head. Sometimes it’s excruciating, because sometimes I hear something hard and distasteful, something I don’t particularly want to hear. But this quieting of the mind is imperative, I believe, for the deep, transformative work of the soul. It’s one of the ways we partner with God in his good work.
The truth is, though, we are never completely transformed during our time here on earth. Notice what Paul says about when God’s good work will be finished: not today, not tomorrow, not even perhaps twenty-five years from now, but “on the day when Christ returns.”
We will not be made wholly and completely perfect, we will not be wholly and completely transformed, until Christ returns. Only then, when he reconciles heaven and earth, when kingdom comes, will everything be set beautifully and perfectly right once and for all.
God begins his good work in each one of us. He continues that good work each and every day of our lives here on earth. And he will finish that good work when he makes not only us but all things new.
He is the Inviter. He is the Igniter. He is the Sustainer. And he is the ultimate Finisher of all good work in us.
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.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ