Once when Abba Macarius was praying in his cell, he heard a voice which said: “Macarius, you have not yet reached the standard of two women in that city.” On his arrival, he found the house and knocked at the door. A woman opened it, and welcomed him to her house. He sat down, and called them to sit down with him. Then he said to them: “It is for you that I have taken this long journey. Tell me how you live a religious life.” They said: “Indeed, how can we lead a religious life? We were with our husbands last night.” But the old man persuaded them to tell him their way of life.

Then they said: “We are both foreigners, in the world’s eyes. But we accepted in marriage two brothers. Today we have been sharing this house for fifteen years. We do not know whether we have quarrelled or said rude words to each other; but the whole of this time we have lived peaceably together. We thought we would enter a convent, and asked our husbands for permission, but they refused it. So since we could not get this permission, we have made a covenant between ourselves and God that a worldly word shall not pass our lips during the rest of our lives.”

When Macarius heard it, he said: “Truly, it is not whether you are a virgin or a married woman, a monk or a man in the world: God gives his Holy Spirit to everyone, according to their earnestness of purpose.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 20.17

People of true sincerity and purity, like the two women in this story, are rare. It seems that careless words are far too common, and sincere people are often pariahs, never feeling that they fit. It can be disarming to meet a person who does not laugh at all the same snarky comments as everyone else. And living peaceably is rare too. How often do people prefer to one-up each other? How often do we, in seeking our own victory, forfeit our opportunity for virtue?

This reminds me of a lyric by Bob Dylan:

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

What Bob Dylan manages to do here is to show the beauty of such a sincere person, who so often goes unnoticed, ignored, or ostracized because of her refusal to play everyone else’s social games. She is careful about what she says. She does not fall for flattery. She doesn’t boast about her great knowledge, yet because of it she has the wisdom to know that some victories really are failures in disguise.

According to Abba Macarius, “God gives his Holy Spirit to everyone, according to their earnestness of purpose.” We do not need to be funnier or smarter or anything than anyone else. Nor, for that matter, ought there to be any place for a “holier than thou” sort of attitude in our hearts. We need only “earnestness of purpose,” a sincere resolve not to live our lives—by whatever means—for such a fleeting thing as the high esteem of others or even of ourselves.

For my part, I know that hasty words often lead to lingering regrets, that what gives me praise for a moment sometimes leaves only shame in my heart. But I know that I need not be a monk of the desert to flee from this aspect of the world: “God gives his Holy Spirit to everyone, according to their earnestness of purpose.” Thank God I am not always so dull that I never realize my mistake after I speak (or write) such careless words for my own glory and to my own shame. Here’s hoping I can get better at seeing them beforehand and learning how to speak “like silence.”

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