‘If only everyone thought like me, things would be much better.’ No, they wouldn’t.

During two weeks in an Aberdeen hospital I got to know most of my fellow patients. Further down the ward was the 25-year-old who’d been there for 12 weeks after smashing his leg by simply falling off his stationary bicycle. Across from me was the man whose wife visited each evening, after which he’d phone his girlfriend. Then there was the old fellow from a remote island off the north of Scotland. Until this illness, he’d never left his small island. Not once.

But the patient I never got to know was right next to me. We exchanged a few words, but that’s all because he had his own TV and watched soap operas all day. Since he had no earphones, I endured every episode too. Most evenings his wife drove a long way to see him, but they didn’t talk – they spent their hour watching one of the prime time soaps together.

I couldn’t do what he did. So much of his life spent on so little. I wanted out of that hospital to pour my energy and skills, such as they are, into things of importance. I wanted my life to matter. I wanted a life well-lived.

But perhaps I’m the odd person. Maybe more people are like the man in the next bed, thinking only about finding pleasurable ways to pass the time.

But, if we are to have a life well-lived, what are (at least some) of the principles we should live by?

Starting with the story of a building project, I’ll lay out some principles in this blog. In other blogs I’ll add some more.

Here we go.

After living in our current house for about nine years, Alison and I finally decided we had to enlarge the back of the property. We’d always disliked the smallness of our kitchen, particularly since it was also a passageway to another part of the house. It was time for a house extension.

An architect did the drawings, the necessary official permissions were granted, and we engaged a builder. He started work in February, and promised the project would be done by June. It wasn’t done by June. Not even nearly. The work continued through the summer, and finally he said it would be finished by Christmas. I almost asked him ‘Which Christmas?’ In the end, the builder kept his promise but only just – the last workman left on Christmas Eve.

It seems all building projects over-run. But our experience pales into insignificance compared to the story of building St Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

There were religious buildings on the same site from the year 960, some of which were enlarged after 1060. But I won’t include those.

We’ll start counting from when work started on the present building. It began, on the instruction of Charles IV, in 1344. Work slowed when the king diverted one of the early architects to other projects, such as the construction of the Charles Bridge. As the years ticked by, architect succeeded architect, each contributing their own features to the building.

Then the slow work became no work. In 1419 the Hussite Wars halted all construction. It wasn’t a short interruption. Little happened for a long time because of wars, a major fire, lack of funds, and probably apathy. The half-finished building stayed that way for over 400 years.

Then, mid-way through the 1800s, a society was formed with the purpose of completing the cathedral. They began by removing some elements of earlier design, repairing others, and in 1870 laid the foundation of a new nave. A whole new façade was built in the later years of the century, and a rose window created in the 1920s.

The cathedral was complete by the time of the St Wenceslas jubilee in 1929. I’ve visited it, and it is truly a remarkable building. It’s also a large building. I was told you could park a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet inside (though there would be a problem getting it through the doors). The cathedral has a prominent location, sitting inside the boundaries of Prague Castle, towering high on the hill above the Vltava River.

So, construction began in 1344 and was completed in 1929. That’s a staggering 585 years. Don’t ever complain again that your building project is taking too long.

The construction story of St Vitus Cathedral gives us some principles of living well.

The best and most lasting of things take time

Nearly 600 years was a very long time to build a cathedral. But the end result is magnificent. In the 21st century, however, what we want we want now. Waiting isn’t in our vocabulary.

While living in America, my TV viewing was interrupted by ads for the P90X fitness system. I was shown how ‘Wayne’ had lost 43 lbs in 90 days. The trainer said: ‘Work out with me and you’ll be shocked by the results.’ I’m sure I would have been shocked, though not in the way the trainer meant.

What that ad was selling was quick-fix fitness. That’s much the same as ads telling us we can speak a foreign language in a week, or look ten years younger with an instant makeover, or pass your motorcycle test after one day’s training, or have a gorgeous garden after one visit to the garden centre.

We’d like to believe these messages. We want things now. Not next week, next month, next year. And we don’t want the effort of mastering a skill, or waiting until the right time, or allowing something to mature or develop.

But that’s not how the best things happen.

I like to remember that God put Jesus on this earth and then gave him 30 years before he started his ‘public ministry’. Time had to pass. The work was too important to rush.

For the important things we do, the same principle applies. Skills must be gained. Maturity and wisdom must develop. The right time must be reached. The right preparations made. The right care put into the work.

We need to be the best we can be. We need to do the best we can do. Those take more than 90 days.

We can’t be loners

Thousands of people, with hundreds of skills, were used to build St Vitus Cathedral – architects, foundation diggers, wall builders, roof builders, creators of stain glass windows, furniture makers, painters of fine art, and so on.

But the foundation diggers couldn’t have built the walls, nor could the stone masons have erected the complex roofs, and neither of them could have installed the beautiful windows.

The important things of this world need people with many different skills and insights.

But there are two problems with this principle.

One, it offends some people’s pride. ‘Are you saying I’m not competent to do this work?’ they’d say. To which I’d want to answer: ‘That’s exactly what I’m saying’. The task requires more wisdom and skill than any one person has.

The other problem is that people don’t like to hear alternative views. They might grudgingly agree there should be input from others, but they don’t want that input to challenge their already established opinion. It should line up behind what they already want to do. It’s annoying and awkward when someone puts forward another proposal. An angry voice eventually shouts: ‘Why can’t you see things the way I do?’

In other words, ‘if only everyone thought like me, …’ ‘if only everyone agreed with my ideas…’  if only everyone had my vision…’ then things would be much better.

No, they wouldn’t. They’d be much worse.

Important things require interaction and interdependency. Ideas and abilities generated by only ‘one brain power’ and ‘one skill set’ would be seriously limited. Good work needs others.

One challenge, then, is to overcome our pride, to accept our ideas may not be the best, and to really believe others have wisdom. Then comes the second challenge, to blend several visions into a cohesive and effective whole. There’s nothing easy about those challenges. But not to try is disastrous.

We must play our part in our day

Since it took so long to build St Vitus Cathedral there’s something peculiar about the experience of the workers. The first foundation diggers toiled generation after generation, and not one of them saw a wall go up. The same was true for the early wall builders, fathers and sons raising high walls, but never seeing a roof in place. And probably those who built the roofs never saw the marvellous art placed later inside the cathedral.

So, almost none of the tens of thousands who laboured on the cathedral during  585 years of construction ever saw the end result of their work: people gathering there to worship God. They never saw the whole thing complete.

But – and here’s the essential truth – each played their part in their day and each part was needed. The wall builders couldn’t have erected towering facades if the foundation labourers hadn’t done their work. Roofers couldn’t have built steep and complex roofs if the walls hadn’t been built.

Every generation who worked on that cathedral needed the one before to have toiled hard and well on their part of the building, because they were now (literally) standing on it. And every generation after them would stand (or fall) depending on how well they did their work now that it was their day.

For the same reasons it’s important we give our best in our day, wherever that’s needed: in our workplace, our family, our church, among our neighbours, in our town or city. We stand on the shoulders of our forebears, building on the work of those who came before us. Others after us will want to stand on our shoulders, the shoulders of people who have given their whole hearts to our tasks and responsibilities. We are the forebears of the next generation.

Put simply: just as we needed those who came before us, those after us will need us to have given our best.

Today is our moment, our time, our day. It’s when we influence lives for the best, shape the world around us, and build something strong that lasts and something magnificent for which others will be grateful. Others came before us, and others will come after us. But this is our day. We cannot fail in what we’re given to do.