Friday 2 March 2012

The Monk and His Bowl

By Artur Suski, S.J.

As we begin Lent, we ask ourselves the question: what shall I give up for Lent? Or perhaps the flip side of the coin: what special thing shall I do during Lent? Lent is a time to ‘pick up the slack’ when it comes to our habits: we either want to work on purging those that get in the way of our relationship with God as well as our fellow brothers and sisters, or on developing those that help these relationships. This is the goal, but are we always aware of this goal when we choose our Lenten commitments? Do we become so absorbed by our commitments that we fail to respond to others’ needs and be generous with our time and energy? Worse yet, our commitments may help fuel a certain spiritual pride. A while back I heard a ‘parable’ addressing this very topic, called “The Monk and His Bowl”. It goes something like this:

Lent was approaching and a very pious monk was trying to decide on what sorts of penances he would do in this Lenten Season. He dreamt of doing heroic deeds of penance to please the Lord. As any monk would do, he put the matter to the Lord in prayer: “Lord, I desire to do great things for you this Lent. I want to be holy and do great acts of penance. What do you want me to do this Lent?”

After a moment of silence, the monk heard a voice, saying: “My dear child, this Lent you will take a bowl of water, fill it to the rim, and place it on your head. Everywhere you go you shall keep it on your head, though you are not to spill even a drop of its water!” Finally, a challenge worthy of me, thought the monk. “Yes, Lord,” answered the monk, “I will do this great deed during Lent.”

All throughout Lent the monk carried a bowl of water on his head, watching every step he took and dodging monks in the corridors. He hardly left the monastery, since that would mean being exposed to unexpected situations outdoors which could lead to spilling some water, and taking drastic measures to ensure he was always at a safe distance from everything that moved. And behold! The monk went through all of Lent without even spilling one drop of water from his bowl!

As Easter drew near he was expecting to receive compliments and praises from the Lord for his great achievement. Indeed the Lord did speak to him on Easter Sunday: “My child, you have indeed accomplished that which I’ve asked of you! Such a difficult task seemed easy for you, well done! But…let me ask you this: as you did everything in your power to prevent any spills, how often did you take the time to help your brother monks? How often did you go and bring the Good News to the town in which you live? How often did you stoop down to the beggar and bring him comfort? Or to the orphan? How often did you try to do more than what was asked of you around the monastery?”

The monk was completely baffled by all these questions because he knew all too well that he avoided all these things from fear of spilling any water: “I did none of these, my Lord, because I wanted to be faithful to your wish, not to spill any water.”

My child,” said the Lord, “you were so absorbed by this command of mine that you forgot about everyone around you. Indeed, you did fulfil it, but I would have had you done so without you leaving charity behind! If only you would have listened to what I told you! I said that you ought not to spill any water. But did I forbid you from sharing this water with those that are thirsty, or with your brother monks, who were working hard on the farm? Your load would have been reduced and you would have been free to serve others and participate in your community. Or even better, you would have been able to refill the bowl and share more water!” The monk realized his mistake: “Lord, your are right, if only I had turned my gaze from myself to you and others!”

What this story teaches us is not that we ought to avoid Lenten commitments; rather, we ought to carry them out in such a way that we do not lose track of everyone around us. Our Lenten commitments should rather enable us to be free of our selfishness and help us turn more freely toward the Lord and those around us. If they become stumbling blocks to this, we should re-evaluate them and ‘tweak’ them appropriately, always keeping in mind their end so that they give us greater freedom to love and serve the Lord and His creation.

So, how is your bowl of water? Have you shared any water with anyone or have you jealously guarded it, making sure you don’t spill any of its content?

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