March 30, 2020
Dear and Beloved Faithful,
The monastic elders of the Egyptian desert hand down to us a number of episodes from the life of a certain saint known as John the Dwarf. Among these tales, certainly the most renowned is the story of the time when John’s spiritual father planted a dry stick in the desert and then sternly charged him to water it every day.
Obviously, as the stick was completely dry, it was a hopeless task. But John, faithful to his spiritual father and trusting in his wisdom, departed every night at sunset, carrying his water pot to the far-away spring from which he would draw water for the stick. Actually, the water source was so far away from where the elder had planted the stick that it took John all night every night to get the water and water the stick. It probably goes without saying, but during this period of his life, John had very little time for things other than watering the stick.
Years passed, and John continued his pattern of rising, traveling in the cool of the night, retrieving the water, and watering his stick. By around the beginning of the third year in which John did this, something wondrous happened: John’s stick came to life and put forth fruit! In shock, John picked some of the miraculous fruit and took it to his spiritual father. The elder gathered the other monastics of the place, distributed the fruit, and joyfully proclaimed, “Draw near and taste the fruit of obedience!”
Now, obviously, this little stub of a story that comes down to us doesn’t really give us much insight into St. John’s mindset or psychology throughout this time. But it’s fair to say that it almost certainly was a time in which John battled many passions, temptations, and strong emotions. Surely, he must have often felt a sense of despair and futility. Why had his elder sentenced him to such a time-consuming, difficult, and seemingly pointless task? In this same vein, it is easy to imagine him feeling anger towards his elder and a desire to rebel. Maybe he was even tempted to go find another elder, rather than continuing to work at this monotonous and clearly pointless task. Perhaps he also struggled with loneliness, travelling alone in the dark and unable to keep vigil with any of the other monks.
We don’t know for sure what John was feeling in the three years in which he was indentured to the stick. But what we do know is that John struggled on through that period of his life, remaining loyal to his spiritual father, and gaining so much spiritual profit that he himself later became a renowned teacher and elder in his own right. Obedience led to growth; service led to mastery. Thus, the Lord’s saying is fulfilled again in St. John: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:26-27).
And this is something that we need to think about at this time in our own life as a community. Many of us are troubled by the restrictions recently placed on our communal life by our bishops. I think it’s fair to say that some have been tempted by the passions of anger and pride, while others have been tempted by despair or even loneliness. These are things, brothers and sisters, that we need to push through and master, just as St. John did. Even if it is a struggle for us, now is the time for us to remain loyal and obedient, with the expectation that obedience will lead to spiritual growth for us.
This is not to say that we cannot be creative within the obediences that have been laid on us. I think it is a virtual certainty that St. John tested every possible path between the spring and the stick, trying to shorten his journey and lighten his burden. Maybe he even experimented with different types or water jars or carrying harnesses. But he did not lose sight of the fact that he was under obedience, nor did he allow his pride to let him despise his elder’s wisdom, holiness, or spiritual maturity. Instead, he continued to give thanks for his spiritual father, even when he could not see the point of the restrictions that had been placed on his life.
Let us likewise at this time continue to give thanks for our bishops, trust their wisdom and spiritual discernment, and pray for them as they face many very difficult decisions in the days ahead.
With Love and Devotion in Christ,