Saint Syncletice said: “My sons, we all know the way to be saved, and fail to travel it because we do not care.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.31A

Salvation can be a controversial subject, but only because it is such an important one. For my part, I would say that there are many senses of the word and that too much energy has been spent in the past by people who were talking past each other. That is not to say that they never have had real differences. But much of the time they were like the six blind men and the elephant in the famous Hindu parable.

One version of the parable goes like this:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk
Cried, “Ho! what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope.
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen.

Now, so far as I know the typical use of this parable is to promote a sort of religious pluralism that can be rather extreme, even for someone like me who tries to focus on areas of convergence and common ground and keep an open mind. That said, my intention here is to entirely misappropriate it for an internal discussion about salvation in Christianity.

Salvation can be (and is) a past perfect, present continuous, and future contingent reality. Furthermore, the word tends to carry a dual meaning of being rescued on the one hand or being healed on the other. Fittingly, this yields six possible ways of looking at it (with many more subdivisions possible). Saint Syncletice is here concerned with the present continuous aspect, since we happen to live in the present and this one, therefore, ought to be at the forefront of our minds. I suspect she is concerned both with healing and rescuing.

According to the prophet Joel, “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). There are many disciplines, but this one, I think, ought to be central. What power does fasting have, or almsgiving, or solitude, if they are not coupled with fervent prayer? Indeed, in hesychasm, repetition of the simple prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy,” which is quite literally to “call upon the name of the Lord,” is the supreme means by which Christian ascetics practice philokalia (“the love of the good/beautiful”), the “art of arts” and “science of sciences.” This practice above all others most effectively purifies our hearts and leads us to the kingdom of God.

So that’s it. Call upon the name of the Lord. Ask that Christ would have mercy. Simple. So why don’t we do it?—“because we do not care.” At my better moments, I have come to realize that there is almost nothing that a person can do during which they cannot also be praying such a simple prayer. Struggle with anger? Tempted by lust? A sucker for greed? Could we fall to these temptations if our minds were constantly being lifted up to God? At the end of the day we must begin by admitting that, too often, we do not experience the salvation we so desperately need (and often even desire) because we simply do not really care.

Perhaps in spending so much time arguing about the elephant it has walked away from us without us even noticing. Now if only someone could open the eyes of the blind so that we could find it once again….

Lord Jesus, have mercy.

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