They said of Abbess Sarah of blessed memory, that for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.19

I have read this saying several times over the years, and it has always bothered me. Perhaps it is simply because I am a Celt (in addition to being German) and I have a strong, natural affinity for the beauty of nature, but such inner strength, such fortitude, that Abbess Sarah must have had is difficult for me to even imagine, let alone realize in my own life.

Until recently, I do not think I can even say that I understood the point of this saying. Many of the desert sayings are still a mystery to me, in fact; I only reflect on the ones about which I actually have a little understanding and a little something to say myself.

The problem that I have with this story is that, despite acknowledging that it must take great inner strength to live “for sixty years … on the bank of a river,” and yet “never [look] down to see the water,” I’ve always thought that such natural beauty was a good thing. After all, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 [18:1 LXX]). But Great Lent has recently given me a little insight into what might be going on in this story.

The other day, as often happens, someone brought a very delicious-looking cinnamon roll/coffee cake/thing into work. As I am (trying to be) fasting from meat, eggs, and dairy, as is the standard in the Orthodox tradition, I decided that I shouldn’t have any. If there was a big announcement and it became a social thing, well then it might have been better just to eat a little bit rather than be antisocial and refuse to accept such hospitality, but this was not the case.

As the day went on, however, I kept seeing the coffee cake every time I went to the break room to refill my coffee. There it was, reduced in size, but still there, its cinnamon swirls and creamy frosting staring back at me. Indeed, I would even peak in throughout the day on my way to the restroom, just to see if there was still any left. Then the thought occurred to me: better not to look at all.

I may not have the fortitude of Abbess Sarah, but have known the joy that fasting can bring by cultivating a greater degree of spiritual strength. Oddly, fasting from food for the body is itself food for the soul.

Abbess Sarah, I contend, does not fail to appreciate the beauty of the river. Indeed, the story would not have been recorded otherwise; her feat of fortitude requires it. Rather, Sarah did not look at such created beauty so as not to be distracted from another beauty, unseen and eternal, infinitely greater than that of the river, despite its true beauty and goodness. No doubt she would have known the words of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:

Oh, that you had heeded My commandments!
Then your peace would have been like a river,
And your righteousness like the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:18)

In looking a little closer at the Psalm I quoted above (i.e. in the ancient Greek [LXX]), I discovered that it could be translated differently: “The heavens declare the glory of God, but the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.” That is, rather than a parallelism here between “the heavens” and “the firmament,” taking both to basically mean “the sky,” one could discern instead a comparison: the heavens may just as legitimately be the immaterial realm of eternity, the abode of God. While the sky God created “proclaims the work of his hands,” the heavens declare his uncreated glory itself—an incomparably greater beauty unseen, but for those with eyes to see it.