A brother said to an old man: “There are two brothers. One of them stays in his cell quietly fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man replied, “Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”
What are we hearing here? The question is clear: When it’s all over, when we have said our last rosary, made our final trip to church, made our last private retreat, fasted every day of our last Lent, and hung by our nose from the steeple of the church as a sign of our eternal commitment to God, will it have been enough to qualify us as saintly?
Only, the old man says, if we have spent our lives taking care of those who could not take care of themselves. Why? Because this is the Word that most echoes the life of Jesus, upon which the monastic’s life is built. The Desert Monastics follow the Jesus who walks from Galilee to Jerusalem curing the sick, raising the dead, and contesting with those along the way who would say that keeping the Law is greater than addressing the needs of the people.
But who are they? Who? They are the old woman across the street too weak to cook her own dinner. Who? The child with no family at home to take care of her after school. Who? The mother whose son is in jail for murder. Who? The cold who live on the streets during the winter. Who? The poor women in jail who have no money to get a lawyer. Who? The ill. The abandoned. The lonely. The destitute. Anyone who needs us over and over again because there is no one else there to care for them. That, the old man says, is holiness. It is that holiness that ought to be the fruit of all our religious practices. And it cannot be substituted for by “playing holy” for all to see while living only for ourselves.
In God’s Holy Light by Joan Chittister“Abba, give us a Word,” the disciples cry. And the Word that comes back is this one: Don’t think that the spiritual life is about the self. It is a hard Word. But it is the only Word that counts.
The fact is that the only purpose of the spiritual life, the Desert Monastics tell us to this day, is to begin to see the world as God sees the world. It is about becoming the self that sees life through the eyes of Jesus and then, like Jesus, bends to become the miracle the world awaits.
—from In God’s Holy Light by Joan Chittister (Franciscan Media)