Lenten Wisdom from the Desert - Meditation 3
John, who had been exiled by the emperor Marcian, said, “One day we went to Syria to see Poemen, for we wanted to ask him about hardness of heart. But he did not know Greek and we did not have an interpreter. When he saw we were embarrassed, he began to speak in Greek, saying, ‘The nature of water is soft, the nature of stone is hard, but if a bottle is hung above a stone letting water drip down, it wears away the stone. It is like that with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but if a man hears the word of God often it will break open his heart to the fear of God.
Today’s wisdom from the desert is quite simple, really, but touches on some things we spoke of last week in our Lenten Study.
Someone asked the question last Friday: if God forgives our sins, if salvation comes through faith, why do we bother confessing our sins each Sunday in church?
The answer to this important question is answered, in part I think, by the saying we have heard today.
Abba Poemen’s answer to the monks who asked about the hardness of ones heart was that we aren’t often changed in an instant, however much we may like to be. Confessing our sins once, or picking up that prayer discipline the first time doesn’t mean we won’t struggle the next day to do the same.
Certain aspects of ourselves, like the hardness of our hearts, or our distractions and tendency to let the worldly things in our life push God out, or our habits of being distracted, need to be slowly chipped away at. These habits need to be built.
Water cannot be thrown at a stone to smash it, but little bits of water over long periods of time will wear stone down. When Shannon and I visited England a few years ago we went to a place called Fountains Abbey, the ruins of a very large monastery where for hundreds of years monks lived and prayed.
At the very front of the remains of the church there was a stairwell that led from the monk’s quarters above down into the church; the same stairwell would be used by them numerous times per day to get to prayer.
You could see in the stone, on each step, two distinct impressions where, over a long period of time, the feet of many monks going to prayer had smoothed and worn the hard and rough stone.
Poemen says that it is the same for us, and it is the same reason that we confess our sins at each service, or pray the same prayers, or read the word of God: because while we may feel distracted or frustrated that we can’t seem to connect with God or our prayers don’t seem to be “working” in the moment, , the very act of trying. The habitual and repetitive act of confessing and praying, of reading and worshipping is changing us into more holy people.
Making habits. Doing things repetitively. Confessing our sins each week, even if sometimes we can’t seem to get our grocery list out of our head as we do, gradually wears our hardened hearts down to be more habitual about our prayer, more ready to be changed, and more open to allowing God’s Spirit to fill us.