Inhabiting a Word

Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Dying to the World

There was, among the desert fathers, a man who often cried aloud during his prayers: “I have died to the world!” He did so very loudly and very regularly so that the other fathers began to anticipate hearing the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world.” Some were inspired by this and began to cry the affirmation out in their own prayers while others were a little annoyed by it.

One day an older father was walking with a young disciple and they heard the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world! I have died to the world!” 

The older turned to the younger and said, “Let me offer some advice: Don’t be so sure you’ve died until you’re dead.”

To quote Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride”, “There’s a difference between mostly dead and all dead.”  The process of sanctification, dying to the world and becoming alive in Christ, being more and more conformed to his image, is a lifelong one. Christian perfection is something we must ever strive for as disciples but we must always do so, as the Apostle Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sin is always lurking somewhere in the recesses of our hearts ready to mount a comeback and all it needs is a little pride. To walk in the way of Jesus is to constantly be dying to the world and being born anew in him. We are called to walk this way with humility, knowing that as long as we are living, there is always more dying to be done.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

In Heaven


In Heaven, Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind
Presently God said:
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered: “Oh, my lord,
“Memory is bitter to me
“For if I did good deeds
“I know not of them.”
Then God in all His splendor
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass,” He said.

-Stephen Crane

This parable in poetry, by the famous Naturalist, Stephen Crane, rewards a little meditation. On first read, the poem is about humility. It calls to mind Jesus’ own words that “he who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” On further thought, though, we find a second, more central insight: the little blade of grass was not filled with any kind of false humility; the little blade of grass was the only one that saw itself clearly. It is important that Stephen Crane uses grass for this illustration because of the sheer absurdity. What can a blade of grass really do to distinguish itself from another blade of grass? Are not all blades of grass exactly alike? And what can a blade of grass do in the way of good deeds? Do not all blades of grass live in the same fashion? Only the little blade of grass saw his existence clearly. There are countless more insights to be gleaned from this deceptively simple poem, but the one I settle on is this: true humility is found in seeing ourselves clearly, not as the triumphant heroes deserving of what good comes our way, and the victim in every misfortune, but as simply another blade of grass made special only by the attention of a gracious creator.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Three Hermits

A certain Archbishop heard a rumor that on a nearby island, there lived a group of Christian hermits who had been shipwrecked long ago and had taken up residence there. People said that they had lived there since they were young men and had very little contact with outsiders. Furthermore, it was said, their understanding of the Christian faith had fallen into disarray after all their many years of conclusion. It was said that these hermits could no longer recite the Apostles Creed, they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, and they didn’t know a thing about the trinity or the incarnation. The Archbishop felt a burden in his heart for these hermits and decided to search them out so that he might bring them back to Christian society.

The Archbishop set sail for the location where the hermits were supposed to be and, sure enough, he found the island exactly as described. When he came to shore, the Archbishop found a small camp where three hermits lived. They each had long white beards down to their waist. The Archbishop greeted the hermits and quickly discovered that all the stories he had heard about them were true. They knew next to nothing about their Christian faith on account of the fact that they were extremely forgetful. The only prayer they knew how to recite was, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” The Archbishop, offered to take them to the mainland so they could be among Christian society, but the hermits had been in eachother’s company on the island so long that they had become quite happy there and they politely refused.

So the Archbishop decided to educate them before he left. He labored at length to teach them the creed, but the three hermits were so forgetful that they simply couldn’t keep any of the information in their heads long enough for it to sink in. Trying to explain the trinity and the incarnation was even more hopeless so the Archbishop focused his efforts on at least getting the hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Archbishop worked with them well into the night. The hermits were eager students. At first they slipped into their habit of praying, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” But after hours of repetition they finally had the Lord’s Prayer down solid.  Satisfied with his work, the Archbishop blessed the three hermits and went on his way.  He had only been out from shore for about 2o minutes when  he heard noise coming from behind the boat. When he turned to see what it was, his jaw dropped. To his astonishment, the three hermits were running across the water to catch up to him. When they finally made it to the boat, they stood on the waves and called out:

“Archbishop! Archbishop! Teach us the words to your prayer again! We’ve already forgotten them!”

At that very moment, the Archbishop fell on his knees and, looking up to Heaven, he prayed, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.”

Leo Tolstoy gives this old Russian folk tale the short story treatment and it is well worth seeking out. It is easy to have disdain for those that we consider to be less knowledgable about the faith than we. It is a trap that those of us who have been in Church all our lives continually fall into. Some even make sport of critiquing the theology of others and cutting them down to size for their simplistic ideas. The truth though, is that Christ is after our hearts, not our heads. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises that it is the “pure in heart” who will see God. A prayer prayed in deep sincerity is answered even if it is not beautiful or learned. As the hold hymn goes, “Let not conscience make ye linger/ nor of fitness fondly dream/ all the fitness He requireth/ is to feel your need of him.” A faith that knows nothing but that it needs the mercy of Christ is a faith that can walk on water.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Brother Masseo’s Request…

During the first days of the Fransiscan movement, St. Francis surrounded himself with disciples who were eager to learn from him and imitate his life of simplicity. One of these was a man named Brother Masseo. Brother Masseo became very convicted one day after hearing Francis preach on the virtue of humility- so convicted that he resolved to forsake all other pursuits and seek only after humility! Brother Masseo went back to his cell and for days on end he fasted and prayed late into the night, begging God to send him to Hell for his sins. All this was in an effort to cultivate humility. He continued like this until one day in his despair he wandered out into the woods where he was startled by a voice from heaven:

“Masseo, Masseo,” said the voice.

“My Lord!” cried Brother Masseo, knowing the voice was that of Christ.

“Masseo,” said Christ, “What will you give me in exchange for the humility you seek?”

“My very eyes!” Brother Masseo called back.

“But I do not want your eyes,” Christ replied, “Keep them, and have my grace as well.”

From that moment on, Brother Masseo was filled with true humility and unspeakable joy.

This little story from “The Little a Flowers of St. Francis”, one of the earliest collections of tales about him and his followers, is a deep parable that rewards contemplation. Brother Masseo ultimately learns that humility cannot be achieved through effort but that it is a gift of grace. He also learns that Christ has no use of our eyes. In other words, our high or low view of ourself and others is of no value to Him. Masseo was trying to obtain humility by lamenting about his wretched estate. Yet it is this very kind of self involved thinking that is the enemy of humility. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less…” I couldn’t put it any better myself.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Father Antony’s Visitors

During the 5th century, a group of Christians retreated to the desert to devote their lives to fasting and prayer, living their lives free of the temptations of the world. They have become known to history as the “Desert Fathers.” One of the most revered of the desert fathers was a man named Father Antony. Stories about his holiness and devotion spread far and wide. It was not uncommon for pilgrims to make a journey out to the desert to see Antony and seek his wisdom. There was one particular group of believers that made a habit of traveling every year to visit Father Antony. There were three of them. Every year when they arrived to Father Antony’s hermitage, two of the three would spend the day questioning Father Antony. They would ask him about the scriptures, the life of holiness, and seek his advice on all matters of faith. Father Antony enjoyed these visits and was always patient with the seekers. It always puzzled him, though, that one of the three never asked anything. Years passed and the three believers faithfully made their pilgrimage again and again. Two of the three always asked questions and the third continued to remain silent. Finally after many years, when Father Antony was getting old and the three travelers were advancing in age as well. The visitors came for what Father Antony thought may be the final time. At the end of their stay, after which the visitors continued their custom of two asking questions and the third remaining silent, Father Antony spoke to the silent visitor:

“Brother, I have enjoyed your visits these many years, but I don’t know how many more years God will grant me, nor do I know how much longer you will be able to make this journey. Your companions have sought much wisdom from me over the years and yet you have remained silent. Was there nothing you have wanted to ask of me?”

The third visitor smiled and said, “Father, it has always been enough just to see you.”

Far more important than the advice we give is the life that we live. Saint Francis of Asisi famously said: “Preach the Gospel always; occasionally use words.” As disciples we are called to help others in their journey toward holiness. Often this requires, patiently listening to their questions and sharing from our learned wisdom. More often, it requires setting an example through your actions. Even if you feel like you aren’t eloquent enough to disciple others, perhaps for them it is enough just to see you.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…