Almost any day of the week, you can find people streaming through the doors of my church and heading, not toward the sanctuary, but toward the basement. That basement is the home of the Opportunity Shop, a thrift shop that is an important hub in the lives of hundreds of men, women, and children. There are the volunteers, who give it their time and their love. There are the “regulars,” who stop by several days a week to see what’s new, both in the shop and in one another’s lives. There are the intermittent patrons, including people who live abroad but always swing by the Op Shop when they are in the states. This shop forms a community of its own. (It also raises an enormous amount of money for grants to community agencies.) And, once or twice a year, there is a half-price sale, which is how I came to pick up Rowan Williams’ book on the Desert Fathers for only twenty-five cents.
Reading the first few pages, I re-encountered one of my favorite stories, about an Ethiopian highwayman who became a monk sometime in the late fourth century. A vigorous, athletic man of imposing stature, Moses nonetheless adopted a strict monastic regimen with such vigor that he became a legend in his own time. The story I love so much concerns a time that a monk who lived at Skete was believed to have committed a serious fault. So the other monks decided to take him to task and invited Abba Moses. He refused to come, so they sent another messenger to him, saying, “They’re all waiting for you.” So Abba Moses stood up, filled a leaky bag with sand, and and brought it with him. When he arrived at the meeting, the other monks were puzzled, so Moses explained, “My sins run out behind me, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of another.” At that point, each of the monks went back to his own cell.
I love that story so much because it tells me something fundamental about the Christian life: we can only come to Christ or to one another as sinners. Forgiven, yes, but still as sinners. When Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled and one of them betrayed him. And when he rose from the dead and appointed them to spread the Good News, the one thing they had to have known about themselves were that they were people who had failed Christ.
That knowledge instills a necessary humility into our lives; that we cannot encounter one another from above, standing on a pedestal of our own righteousness, but only on the broken ground of our failing, over and over, to be the person we long to be. Ours is not the prayer of the Pharisee who stands before God and lauds his own good works, but that of the tax-collector, who says, over and over, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
What would change in your life if you prayed that prayer each morning of Lent? Whom could you learn to love?
Five times each day our Muslim brothers and sisters begin their prayer in the name of God the merciful and compassionate. That is surely our Christian hope, particularly in this year of Mercy. I often feel like Scrooge confronted with Marley’s ghost, itself dragging a seemingly endless chain of keys, safes and cash boxes. Like Scrooge I wonder how long is my own chain. How full is my personal bag of sand, and how much still remains in it. Abba Moses surely got it right. Judge not that we be not judged. In Lent perhaps we should pray the Kyrie Eleison with particular intensity, knowing how long is our chain, how little sand is left, how much mercy we need and how far we are from deserving it.
Moses predates Pope Francis with another form of “Who am I to judge?” Thank you for the suggestion to pray the Pharisee-tax collector prayer. I prefer “Day by Day” and “These Days,” for prayer inspiration all year long. Thank you for introducing us to this Moses. Why did he pack sand in his suit case?
Bob, I think he packed sand so that he’d have a visual of it running out behind him. There’s a variant version of the story (which, indeed, is the one Rowan Williams chooses to use) in which he takes a leaky bucket of water instead.
I miss you, Bob. Hope you and Carol are well.