Recently I came across a wonderful little story from a collection of the sayings of the ‘desert fathers and mothers,’ who sought the solitude of the Egyptian desert as a crucible for their Christian asceticism: A pious, young man went to visit a certain desert elder.
“How are you getting along, Abba,” he asked.
“Very badly, my child.”
“I have been here forty years,” the elder answered, sighing deeply, “doing nothing other than cursing my own self each day, inasmuch as in the prayers I offer, I say to God, ‘Accursed are those who deviate from Your commandments.’” Hearing the hermit speak in this way, the young man marveled at his humility and decided to emulate him.
In pondering the beginning of Lent, and once again hearing the exhortation to “observe a holy Lent,” this story struck me as a rather delightful entry point to the Lenten spirit. The more I have read it, slowly, the more I have found in it a simple invitation into Lenten reflection. But of course ‘simplicity’ and ‘simplistic’ are not the same thing; from simplicity springs a multitude of possible directions for fruitful reflection, and none of them simplistic!
First, the dialogue begins with the young man seeking wisdom, and asking a question of an elder. This seems so simple, and yet I wonder how often I stop to ask an elder for their wisdom, to draw on the longer experience of another, who has seen and heard and lived things that I have not – and who has cultivated a deep faith through it all, carrying a sense of settledness, a sense of peace, a sense of the *stabilitas* of God in the midst of life.
Second, the simplicity and gentleness of the question suggests a genuine care. “How are you getting along, Abba?” There’s no hint of another agenda behind the question, aside from the care for and respect offered to this ‘Abba,’ this admirable elder who has sought the ways of God in the most serious of ways. To ask this question is to be ready to listen, and to take the time that listening requires.
Third, as one would expect of any serious desert father or mother, the answer comes with both a raw honesty and an open invitation leading to another question. The elder begins to open a path for the questioner to follow further along. “Very badly, my child.” I wonder, in our own pandemic times, whether we are now more attuned to this kind of answer, more ready to attend to what it might mean when someone replies, “Very badly.” And that kind of answer, too, is an answer that invites slowing down to attend to the life of another, and to seek the wisdom of God in it.
And then the Lenten moment. The wisdom of the elder’s ‘forty years’ is conveyed in the self-reflexive moment, a reversal of all the assumptions about religiosity: that what might appear at first glance to be a seeking of holiness by separation – “accursed are those” – is in fact the holiness of identification. The separation of the desert leads, via God as Creator of all, to a deeper solidarity born of the humility of a prayerful listening to God and to others, by way of the self. And so the elder blesses the younger with an ironic gladness akin to Isaiah’s “all we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6) – I can only imagine the laughter in the “doing nothing other than cursing my own self each day.”
Perhaps that brings new levity to the words of Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And so, in that light, new paths of connection with God and others: “Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation.” (BAS, 285). Amen.