I read the strangest story the other day, about a fourth-century desert monk named Abba Paul.
Like many of the hermits of his day, Paul wove baskets as he prayed each day. Unlike them, however, he lived far enough away from the city to make it impractical to transport his baskets to the city and sell them for a meager income. His contemporary John Cassian wrote that Abba Paul:
could not do any other work to support himself because his dwelling was separated from towns and from habitable land by a seven days’ journey through the desert…and transportation cost more than he could get for the work he did. [Nevertheless], he used to collect palm fronds and always exact a day’s labor from himself just as if this were his means of support. And when his cave was filled with a whole year’s work, he would burn up what he had so carefully toiled over each year [and begin again.]
So what’s the point of working…for nothing?
What’s the value in sticking to such a routine?
I thought about Abba Paul’s odd discipline last night when I attended the first installment of a seven-week Life In The Spirit Seminar (LISS) at my parish. Truth is, I felt a bit conflicted about signing up for the seminar, not because I didn’t expect to be showered with spiritual gifts…but because the schedule for this LISS promised to interrupt one of my most cherished spiritual routines.
For about a dozen years now, I’ve met almost every Monday night with a handful of my brothers-in-Christ in a faith-sharing group. Looking back, I’m amazed at the many blessings that have been nurtured in my life by this particular prayer habit. And signing up for LISS meant I’d have to let it go – at least for a time; let it go for, by far, the longest stretch in the decade+ that we’ve been getting together.
I didn’t make the decision unilaterally. We took a vote in the small group – and it was pretty much unanimous: We’d all try to make the LISS sessions in lieu of our regular Monday night meeting this June and July. And sure enough – many of the guys were there last evening, scattered around the crowd of 120 or so folks gathered in the Parish Center.
The blessings came in bunches, too – beautiful praise music; a talk by Bishop Robert Hermann (fast becoming one of my all-time favorite churchmen); a wonderful witness given by a young woman I’ve known for years; and some time spent in small-group faith sharing. Granted, it wasn’t with my regular band of brothers…but at least a part of my Monday night routine remained intact.
So it was both familiar…and brand new. Sort of like the baskets woven by Abba Paul: Baskets…from which he had to consciously break free…in order to keep his heart open to the stirrings of the Spirit.
Imagine my surprise, then, to read the LISS prayer that we participants were all encouraged to say at the beginning of our day today:
I want to step back from my daily routine, God. I want to see Your hand in my life. Show me how to recognize Your presence…
We’ve all prayed, I suppose, to be like clay in the Potter’s hand. But this is a new experience for me: Praying for a break from my habits, even the healthy ones.
Praying for perspective — just the spiritual gift we need, perhaps, to keep from becoming a spiritual basket-case, enslaved to routine.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.