There were three friends who each had a reputation for hard work: Each of the three had staked out for himself a way of life he believed faithful. The first one took to heart Jesus’ beatitude ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and chose to spend his life reconciling those who fought one another. The second adopted as his life’s work the care of the sick. The third went out to the desert to live a life of prayer and stillness.
The first, for all his efforts, found himself unable to make peace in a world bent on hatred and vengeance and war. Disheartened, he sought out his friend the healer, to see if he had fared any better. But the second was equally dispirited.
So the two went to the third. They told him of their own lives, how they had pursued the noble ventures of peacemaking and healing but had somehow, along the way, lost heart. They begged him to guide them, to tell them somewhere to go, something to do.
The three sat in silence a while. Then the third, the desert dweller, poured water into a bowl and told them to look at the water. It lapped up against the sides, agitated, swirling and bobbing up and down. They sat a while. They he said to them, ‘Look how still the water is now.’ When they looked down again, they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror.
And so the desert dweller said to his friends: ‘It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings.’
I’ve always found that Lent is an intensely introspective time for me. In fasting we most often deny ourselves something we don’t really need but desire anyway and thereby with our desires going unsated seek to heighten our spiritual awareness, much like someone who loses the sense of sight only to find that their hearing is improved.
One of the great dangers of Lent and of any time of penitence is that we can often focus too much on our fasting and on our discipline. Penitence and humility can easily give way to pride and get in the way of our offering of repentance during these seasons. The desert dweller in the saying knows that outside of the desert pride, self-focus, agitation, and activity are enemies of this repentance and that in stillness we can see these pernicious things in ourselves.
This doesn’t mean our agitated, prideful, self-focused repentance is not true; even if a distracted, often-failed fast is all we are capable of offering then that is our true repentance and is our way forward in Lent and is our freedom. The desert dweller calls us to gaze into the mirror of stillness and see ourselves broken, failing, and incapable; but what we see–far more than the un-reflected, shallow, and self-oriented world outside of the desert–is the truth, is us, and is our repentance.