A story from the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers goes like this. An esteemed teacher decided to engage in an act of selfless service. He had heard that there was an island far out in the ocean on which were people who followed the Way of Jesus. He felt sorry for these poor souls because they were far from the schools in which scriptures were studied and taught. He decided that his selfless service would be to travel to this island, at his own expense, and bring knowledge to those people.
He reflected that if he were a deeply faithful servant of his Master he wouldn’t need a boat to make the journey. Like Peter, he would be able to walk on the water. He hadn’t reached that level of faith and trust yet, though. So he hired a ship.
After a day and night at sea he came at last in sight of the island, and he prepared himself through prayer to meet the ignorant souls who would be in need of his understanding. As he drew near to the shore he heard voices coming out over the water. They seemed to be raised in some sort of a chant or a prayer.
The teacher listened closely as the ship drew nearer and nearer the island. He finally figured out that it was the Lord’s Prayer that the islanders were praying, but they had the words all wrong! In fact it was an impossible garble. His heart went out to them. How could they get close to the Master they yearned to serve, how could they take even the very first step as disciples if they could not say his Prayer properly?
He disembarked at a quiet docking area, left the ship and immediately set out for the place from which the voices he had heard seemed to be coming. He found a group of huts on a hill overlooking the water. In the common area between the huts several men and women were gathered together praying. He rushed in among them. “The prayer you are attempting – I can teach you the proper words,” he called.
They were extremely grateful for his help. They gathered around him and dutifully learned the proper words to The Lord’s Prayer. He kept at it with them all afternoon and into the evening. They faltered in their learning, but he was very patient. He felt so compassionate for them in their ignorant stumbling. Weren’t they, like he, servants of the Divine Master – even if they were so much less knowledgeable than he?
At nightfall, thinking he had made a good start with the islanders and that he would return in a few weeks to teach them again, he returned to the ship. The captain put out from shore a little ways and anchored. They would sleep on board and return to the mainland in the morning. The esteemed teacher went to sleep, satisfied that he had done a good job.
At sunrise he arose to pray for his students one more time before his ship set sail for the mainland. As he drew breath to begin, he heard the islanders begin their morning prayer. At first they recited the words to the Lord’s Prayer he had taught them perfectly. But after just a short time they began to falter and stumble. He grimaced. All his hard work, and they didn’t seem to be getting it! He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath and willed himself to be patient. Ignorance was often obstinate, not easily dispelled.
When he opened his eyes he saw the most amazing thing! Two of the islanders were coming toward the ship, and they were walking on the water! The teacher was dumbfounded. “Kind teacher,” they said to him when they drew near, “we cannot seem to remember the words you taught us. Would you be so kind as to tell us once again what they are?”
The teacher recognized in that instant how pompous his assumptions had been, and he got down on his knees and begged the forgiveness of the islanders.
In today’s reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that we are not accountable to one another for our spiritual practices. Like any servants we are accountable only to our Master. What works to draw us closer to Holy Presence – to the knowledge that we are deeply loved and valued by God – is between us and God. Nobody else can tell us.
What are your special, quirky, you-shaped practices? How do you remember God’s love?
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado