A pilgrim to the Holy Mountain of Athos asked an old hermit, “Father, how can I attain my salvation?” The venerated holy man replied, “Every day at dusk go to the cemetery and for an hour hurl insults to the dead. Do that for a month and pay attention to everything that happens around you. Then come and report to me.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I have done what you told me but nothing happened!” The hermit then said, “Go to the cemetery again for another month and sing praises to the dead. Then come and tell me what happened.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I did what you told me but nothing happened!” The holy father then said, “My son, if you wish to attain your salvation, be like the dead, indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.”
~ From Inner River, vii
(the epithet on the inside before the TOC)
Ah yes. In the unique manner of monks, we have the recommendation, in addition to always keeping the day of one’s death on one’s mind, to live like the dead, “indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.” I have written previously on the dangers of praise and the avoidable nature of anger when provoked, and while these are both themes that deserve continued reflection, I would like to primarily focus on something else for this post.
What strikes me about this saying—other than the powerful image of dispassion given at the end—is that, despite the fact that we can read it in a minute, it took two months time for this pilgrim to hear the “punchline,” so to speak. I think that there is more wisdom here than the obvious. Sometimes clear and succinct lessons do not really have a lasting effect on us, contrary to the impression that they may have when we first read them. Certain lessons, and often the ones we take most to heart, take time to truly learn. By “learn,” I do not simply mean memorize or remember. Rather, it is the sort of learning, the sort of knowledge, that sinks deep under the skin.
I know quite well that I ought to hold my tongue, for example, but often fail to successfully follow through. I do not necessarily mean here that I fail to hold back negative comments—sometimes silence, even when what one has to say is positive, is the best thing for one’s soul. My problem is not a lack of knowledge about stories and sayings relating to silence. My problem is a lack of habit; I have not yet learned true silence in the same way that my ten-month-old son has not yet learned to walk. His problem is not a lack of academic knowledge. Nor is it a mystery to him: he sees other people walking, and he will take steps when we hold his hand. His problem is that he has not learned the practice yet, a practice that, soon after it is learned, will become second nature.
That is the sort of thing that takes a lot of time and effort to learn. I remember watching Brendan learn to crawl; who knew that it was such a complex operation! It took weeks and weeks for him to get each component part down: rolling over, sitting up, propping himself up on his hands and knees, moving his legs and arms at the right time, moving backwards, and finally crawling. Now he crawls everywhere; there’s no stopping him. But what a process it was for him to learn!
I know, as this story illustrates so well, that it takes greater self-control and humility to live like the dead, “indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.” However, I think it would be a mistake to overlook the story it took to get to the proverb. That pilgrim learned it in a different way than I have, but through his openness to the process and his obedience to this hermit and trust in his wisdom, the pilgrim received a souvenir beyond price: the heavenly treasure of a good lesson—one of salvation—well learned.