One of my favorite stories of the desert abbas and ammas reminds me of the slowness and smallness of progress in spiritual growth. A hermit told a brother who was discouraged about his lack of progress in keeping the monastic rule about a father who told his son to clear a field. The son, discouraged at the amount of thorns and thistles, lay down and slept instead. His father found him asleep and asked him why he had done nothing. The son said the task was larger than he could do, but the wise father said that if he would clear only the place he slept each day, the work would advance slowly and the son would not lose heart.
We sometimes think we are not progressing because we don’t clear our inner field all at once. The spiritual journey, however, is not a sprint but a marathon. The thorns and thistles have to be cleared away a little at the time. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter 6, Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to not grow weary in doing good. As I reflected on that verse this morning, I saw within myself the thorns and thistles of a lingering resentment. My first inclination was to berate myself for the resentment, but then I thought about story about clearing the field, and I realized that this was the “patch” that needed my attention at this moment.
We live in a culture that does not value slowness and smallness. Consequently, we get discouraged when the only way forward is through slow, small progress. I’ve seen it with folks who are recovering from surgeries or health issues and I’ve also seen it in people who have had a significant spiritual awakening. We tend to grow impatient and frustrated when healing is prolonged and when the spiritual high has descended into ordinary time. And when we come upon an inner patch of thorns and thistles, we may choose to shrug our shoulders and go to sleep, preferring to numb ourselves against the acknowledgement that we are not all we imagined ourselves to be.
I’m grateful that God’s expectations of us do not move at our Western culture’s go-go pace. Grace is about slow, small progress. I won’t even say it’s about steady progress, because the journey of spiritual growth is not linear. It happens in its own time, but it only happens if we keep at it.