Friday, 17 October 2014

The Unclean Men and the Guardians of the Cisterns

A Spiritual Narrative

  In a remote part of the desert where it never rained lived two men. They never had enough water to bathe yet only to drink, and thus every month they would journey to a guardian of the cistern where they could wash and refresh themselves. After a month of not having bathed a sojourner exclaimed to the two men: “You two both smell horrific!” It was thus that one of the men said to his companion: “He is right, we are in desperate need of a good wash.” “I have been thinking the same thing” replied the other man, “we should make a journey to the guardian of the cistern, for there we will be able to wash and bathe.” “I agree” replied the first man, “yet I do not want to go to the guardian nearest to us, because I prefer going to the guardian who resides in the town; for even though he is a day’s journey away, it is much better to go to him.” Both men were in agreement on this point for they both preferred going to the guardian in the town, rather than to the guardian who lived but ten minutes away from where they resided. The reason they preferred going to the guardian who was further away, was because he gave them water in a vessel of gold, and had baths that were furnished with rubies, sapphires and pearls. The guardian nearest to them however, was poorer and less polite than the other guardian; and he would serve them water in a wooden vessel, having baths that were fashioned from undecorated clay. This is the reason why they preferred to go to the guardian who lived in town.


As the next morning came the two men said to each other: “Ah we have woken too late to be able to make it by evening to the guardian who lives in town; let’s delay our journey until tomorrow.” Then the next day came, and one of the men said to the other: “I feel too tired to be able to make the journey today, let’s delay our journey until tomorrow.” “Yes, good idea” replied the other man, “I’m feeling quite tired myself.” With varying excuses and countless justifications, this continued for an entire month. Meanwhile the men were passing the house of the guardian who lived nearest to them almost every day, for throughout the week they would journey to the mountain to gather honey –which they rarely would find; berries –which they always would find, yet would often mostly let drop upon their return, or would crush in their recklessness; and also in order to hunt wild animals with their bow and arrows, animals that roamed only within that region.


One morning, after forty days had elapsed, one of the men woke up terribly ill and with a tremendously high fever. “I think I am dying” said the man who was ill, “and I suspect it is from my infected wound which I have not washed for quite some time.” “You have a wound?” exclaimed the other man with surprise, “you should have told me! For then I would have insisted that you go to the guardian whom we do not prefer, for after all, he lives so close to us and we pass by him nearly every day.” “I am so foolish” responded the ill man with shame, “I let my pride blind me, for even though the guardian who lives in town is a much better man and his service is sublime, both he and the guardian who lives near us have the same very water which I am in need. Ah! I renounce my foolishness!” Having said this the ill man breathed his last. At once the other man fled to the house of the nearest guardian and bathed himself clean. He then buried the body of his companion and from that day onwards he would stop by at the cistern of the nearest guardian every time he would venture towards the mountain. Occasionally he would make a day’s journey to bathe at the residence of the preferable guardian, yet despite this, henceforth he never forwent the opportunity to bathe whenever it was offered. Indeed from that time onwards every sojourner would comment to him saying: “You must be the cleanest man in the desert! For we smell not the slightest odour upon you, save only the sweet fragrance of aloes, myrrh and the trace of rosewater and spikenard.”

Narrative Commentary

1. This story is open to countless interpretations and it teaches various moral, spiritual and practical lessons. The following is one layer of interpretation intended for this particular tale.

2. The two guardians are analogous of two different types of priests. The unfavourable guardian who lived nearer to the men represents the priest who may become irritated when one asks him to hear one’s confession, or the kind of priest who offers no advice, word of wisdom, encouragement or sound direction (i.e. undecorated clay bath); or the type of priest who is overly harsh or judgemental with those who come to confess to him. The preferable guardian who lived in town is representative of a kind and caring priest who offers simple advice, a word of wisdom or encouragement, or sound spiritual direction (the bath embedded with sapphires, rubies and pearls); or the kind of priest who is perhaps firm at times, but always loving and gentle with those who come to confess to him; and who is always willing and glad to hear one’s confession no matter when or where.

3. The mountain is symbolic of the Holy Mass and Eucharistic Adoration because the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’. The honey symbolises the delight of Divine Intimacy received through one’s reception of Holy Communion, a grace received by all yet a grace tasted and made fruitful only in those who approach this Sacrament with the disposition of Mary Herself: the disposition of pure trust, confident faith, ardent love, and humble Adoration. The berries symbolise the efficacious graces received from the reception and Adoration of the Eucharist, yet the dropping of these berries symbolises the casting-away or loosing of the efficacious graces received because of a poor disposition (i.e. imperfect preparation for the Sacrament) and the crushing of these berries the squandering of the graces received through a lack of thanksgiving. It reads in the Catechism: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1131). The wild animals that roam only in the region of the mountain, which the men would hunt for, represent the Beloved who dwells in the Eucharist and comes to us through the Eucharist, and who ‘wears the various hides’, as it were, of the countless Attributes of God. The hunting undertaken by the men represents the search of the soul for God through meditation and/or contemplation in and of the Attributes of God. The bow represents the faculty of the will and the arrows the loving affections of the will with which the soul seeks to pierce and ‘capture’ her Beloved. Wherefore the above gleans insight into the Song of Songs wherein it is written: “My beloved is like a gazelle, or a young stag.” (2:9a); “turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle, or a young stag upon rugged mountains.” (2:17b); and “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices.” (8:14). And furthermore in Genesis when Isaac said to Esau: “Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me, and prepare for me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat; that I may bless you before I die.” (27:3-4).

4. The cisterns symbolise the sacramental graces that instrumentally flow forth through the ordained priest. Whilst the baths symbolise the sacrament of confession, and the vessel and baths themselves symbolic of the manner in which this sacrament is given.

5. The bad smell and uncleanliness is symbolic of the uncleanliness of sin and the stench of apathy towards offending God and neighbour.

6. The two men signify a type of attitude that is often held in regards to the Sacrament of Confession and in regards to certain priests, by regular Mass attending Catholics. This type of attitude is one whereby the individual holds the intention to go to Confession, and yet this intention is motivated not by a true contrition, love for God or desire to receive healing and forgiveness, but rather by a motive kindled by a subconscious fear of God and a desire to fulfil what one feels is a duty. Now because such a motive is not primarily from love, but primarily from self-love, the evils of sloth, apathy and rationalisation wage war against such a soul. Thus although one may have plenty of time available, and may have not been to confession for a few weeks, they will repress and squash the Holy Spirit’s promptings to receive this Sacrament by various justifications. It is thus that although one may go to Mass every day, or almost every day, they will refuse to go to Confession or ask for it from the priest, simply because he is a bit too this, or a bit too that; or not enough of this, or not enough of that. They will forgo the opportunities to receive this Sacrament, even when there are no other opportunities, or if there are other opportunities they will not bother to go or will say “tomorrow I will go” yet tomorrow comes and goes. Just as the two men kept putting off their journeying to the guardian who lived far away. Indeed this type of procrastination is of the devil, because by it someone forgoes an opportunity of grace because of petty excuses.

7. The moral of this story is not to say that every time the opportunity to go to Confession comes you must take it, but rather, that when you feel the promoting to go you should go, regardless of who the priest is. This is especially true whether you have the inclination or not when one is bound by the rules of one’s community to go to confession every month or two.

8. If we repress the inspiration to receive this Sacrament because we fear being judged or embarrassed by having a particular priest hear our confession; it is a sign that we are filled with self-love which is vanity. We can be sure that if we let fear of judgement or embarrassment prevent our confessing when we feel the inclination to, that self-love rules our soul more than the love of God. If we have fears of being judged or of being humiliated by confessing to a particular priest (i.e. one whom we know well and who thinks well of us), yet do not let these feelings prevent our confessing, then love of God outweighs the presence of self-love within our souls. However to the degree to which we fear being judged or embarrassed is the degree to which we are filled with self-love. If we do not fear being judged or embarrassed, even when confessing to the priest we would least prefer, then indeed God’s love has conquered and cast out the swine of self-love.

9. The man who died from an infected wound can be representative of the soul who commits voluntary venial sins and is negligent in repenting of her faults, to the point that her flesh is wounded (by many unchecked venial sins) and eventually infected (mortal sin).  The infection can also represent the build-up of many or a few venial sins without proper measures of repentance, prayers, alms giving and penance, so that eventually the soul dies –not literally as it does from mortal sin, but in a different spiritual sense, in that the soul dies to the possibility of reaching its full stature of perfection on this earth. This kind of death is due to pride and spiritual sloth and apathy, and can also be caused by false-piety –the kind of piety that fans the flames of self-love rather than love of God; and false-discernment –the kind that is void of faith, trusting surrender, prayer and action, and is but a veil to hide ones cowardice, faithlessness and false-judgement. May we be delivered from such a death as this, for indeed if we are persistent enough in being negligent with grace, we shall die to the full stature we have been called to attain. Concerning such a death it is written: “Weep for the dead, for he lacks the light; and weep for the fool, for he lacks intelligence; weep less bitterly for the dead, for he has attained rest; but the life of the fool is worse than death.” (Sirach/Ecc 22:11). The simple remedy for this most common illness that overtakes many a spiritual person, is firstly to pray to God to remain faithful and docile to His Will, and then secondly to take the very trust of Mary Herself that God will fulfill your request; and thirdly by continually saying ‘yes’ in surrender of your will to God’s Will. Fortified in this manner, this spiritual-death which is a most common and often easy victory for the devil is made impossible for that foul beast.

10. When the man fled to the nearest guardian to bathe as soon as his friend had died, and only buried the body after he had cleaned; this can be said to symbolise the first priority that must be given to doing, seeking, and fulfilling God’s Will which is the Kingdom of Heaven. This kind of haste is indicative of perfect and true repentance, for as soon as the man realised the gravity of his negligence and foolishness –his own ugliness of which he beheld in the mirror of his neighbour- he fled immediately to bathe, despite his preference for the other guardian. This kind of haste is the haste of love, one which sees all else as peripheral when compared to the importance of pleasing God and of being in perfect union with Him. This is the kind of haste that is natural to the perfect soul. Concerning this priority of haste we read in the Scriptures: “But he said to another: ‘Follow me.’ And he said: ‘Lord, suffer me first to go and to bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.’” (Lk 9:59-60).

11. The presence of no foul odour upon the man can be symbolic of the absence of apathy of offending God and neighbour for the sake of God, thus such a soul always intends to please God and serve their neighbour. The sweet fragrance in general is the exuding presence of the Holy Spirit, which seeps forth through the pores of such a soul because of their docility to God’s Will. The aloes specifically refer to the presence of Divine Love; the myrrh the presence of the glory of the Cross; the rosewater the presence of Divine Mercy; and the spikenard the presence of the Light of the Divine Will which permeates such a soul’s every word, thought and deed. Concerning this commingled fragrance St. Paul writes: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere." (2 Cor 2:14).

12. It is important to keep in mind that this story is not emphasising that which must be done in order to secure one’s salvation, but rather that which the soul must do –by obeying the voice of the Spirit within- to attain one’s full statute in the perfection of sanctity. And assuredly growing to such a stature involves more than simply going to confession when one feels promoted, it requires total submission and obedience to the Holy Spirit who is Love Himself, wherefore He shall be able to transform us into perfect images of God the Son for the glory of God the Father.

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