Athanasius, newly consecrated bishop of Alexandria, was determined to visit all the churches in his see, to make certain the orthodox faith was being proclaimed. On his journey he learned of three, old monks who lived alone on an island. Like the devoted bishop he was, Athanasius set sail to the island to shepherd, even if briefly, this small flock. He was greeted with great warmth and reverence by the monks. “Tell me,” Athanasius said to them after awhile, “how it is that you pray.” “Father, we are not learned men,” the monks replied. “We simply lift our hands to God and say, ‘We are three and you are three: Have mercy upon us.’”
“Ah, dear Fathers, this will never do,” said Athanasius. “I must teach you to pray as the church prays.” And for the next several days – the monks were slow learners – the new bishop taught the old monks the Lord’s Prayer. Satisfied at last that the monks knew how to pray properly, Athanasius set sail for Alexandria. That very night aboard his ship he noticed a glow in the distance, a glow getting brighter and rapidly approaching the ship. He looked and saw the three old monks running toward him on the water. When they reached the ship they simply stood on the water as on dry ground with holy light encompassing them. “Father Athanasius,” they said, “forgive our slowness, but we have forgotten again the words of the prayer you taught us. Please pray with us again.” “No, my fathers,” Athanasius said. “It is you who must pray for me.”
Being right all the time and always knowing what is best for others is quite the burden, but it is a burden that I bear with great humility.
I suppose there are times when we all know what is best for others and we don’t mind telling them. In some cases we may be right, but I suspect that much of the time we fall far short of the mark in the “advice” department.
Athanasius believed that because these three monks did not know the Lord’s Prayer, they couldn’t possibly be praying correctly; therefore, in his great wisdom and innocence proceeded to teach them how to pray “properly” – “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” As it turns out the three monks were ignorant of the Lord’s Prayer, but they were in no way ignorant of the Lord, so much so that they radiated the glory of God, while walking on the water.
So often, what we want others to do is more directly related to what we want, instead of being what they need.
Take Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. At the third temptation we read, “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’”
That’s a fairly easy one given the two main characters, Jesus and the Devil. The Devil wants Jesus to renounce God’s will and follow his. He wanted Jesus to do what he – the Devil – wanted him to do and not what God had called him to.
A similar situation occurred in our Gospel reading today. Jesus was teaching his disciples about what was to come: the rejection, the suffering, and his eventual death. Peter refused to believe what he was hearing. It tore through him. “This will not be,” and he rebukes Jesus. And Jesus turns and rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Once again, the Devil wants Jesus to renounce the Father’s will and follow his, and once again Jesus rebukes him.
There is a right and a wrong, good and evil. Believe it or not, we know the difference. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit the Lord said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” And as Paul teaches in his Letter to the Hebrews, we can train ourselves “to distinguish good from evil.” However, even though we know and can distinguish good from evil, we are not always certain because of sin. Because of our own sin, there will always be this gray area, so when it comes to instructing others and even discerning for ourselves, we must remember that there are two sides that stand in complete contrast of one another. There is what the world wants and what God wants. Darkness and Light. Yet, in the middle – where we reside – there is often confusion. The etymology of the word confusion is to pour-together..
Most folks know that if you pour yellow and blue together you get green, but the confusion that comes from pouring good and evil together is not so simple and that is what the Devil is very good at. Blatant evil – darkness – is easy to spot, but this gray area, this confusion can be quite murky. Harry Truman said it best, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” The Devil is a master of this. So how are we to respond? How will we be able to separate the good from evil, the darkness from light, the way of God and the way of the Devil? It is never simple but there is a wonderful story in First Kings about the Prophet Elijah that will assist us in beginning to clear the murkiness.
Elijah is being pursued by those who will not tolerate his words. They seek to kill him, so he flees to the mountains. While there the Lord comes and speaks to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah pours out all his problems. In his voice you can hear the confusion, the anxiety, the lack of peace in his soul. So the Lord tells him, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Then the Lord asked him the exact same question He had asked him before, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Surprisingly, Elijah answers him with the exact same word, but this time you can hear the calmness in his voice and the lack of anxiety. You can hear the peace as he speaks with our God. Elijah could not understand the words of God while in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire. He couldn’t understand the voice of the Lord while in the confusion. It was only in the peace of that “gentle whisper” that he heard God, and it was then that God spoke very specific instructions to Elijah on how to proceed.
How will we be able to separate the good from evil, the darkness from light, to be able to come out of the confusion of those gray areas? Ultimately, how will we know the direction that will lead us to God?
This is what the Lord says, from Jeremiah 6, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
How will we know? The answer lies in the peace. In the gentle whisper, the still small voice.
You may think, “We have a priest now. Like Athanasius with the three monks, he will tell us what to do.” I hope you won’t be disappointed, but that is not my job. Instead, I pray that we will find that peace, that we will hear that gentle whisper, and that together we will stand at the crossroads and discover the ancient path – the good way – and together will walk in it.
What will we discover on that path? It won’t be the secrets to the universe or a formula for world peace or some narrowly defined agenda or any other grandly conceived scheme. No. Instead, we will discover love, but not the kind of love expressed in a Hallmark card. We will discover the kind of love that hangs upon a cross. A kind of love that unites us one to another and a kind of love that unites us all to our God.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If, together, we discover nothing else along the way, this will be more than enough.