The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells the story of three monks who lived on a remote
island. Nobody ever went
there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he
arrived, he was shocked to discover that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s
Prayer. So he spent all his time on the island teaching them the “Our Father”
and then departed, satisfied that he had done a good piece of pastoral work.
But when his ship was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop, overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”
(I got this story from an article by Trevor Miller entitled “Pray as You Can, Not As You Can’t” on the website of the Northumbria Community. https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/pray-can-cant/ )
Throughout my ministry, I’ve met a lot of people who are like those monks. They don’t know many of the prayers, Scripture passages or hymns that at one time people were expected to know.
And it makes them feel really inadequate. “Don’t ask me to pray, I don’t know how.” “I’m so biblically illiterate, I don’t know anything.” “You’re the expert, not me.”
On the other hand, I’ve often been astonished that some of these people can “walk on water” – not literally, but in the sense of demonstrating unexpected wisdom, maturity, imagination, character and understanding. People whose relationship with God is vibrant and alive, and who live out their faith in remarkable ways.
Trevor Miller writes that what matters in prayer is “the state of the heart before God rather than the techniques used.”
If my work over the last three years has shown me anything, it is that the church is not dead, but that the church is alive in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways. Our congregations and the people in them often have a lot more going for them than even they realize.
But sometimes they’re like those monks on that island. Their spirituality is heart-felt. It’s intuitive. It’s instinctive. But it’s unformed and unfocused. It would benefit from being shaped by practices and habits and traditions that have been passed down to us. So the bishop was right in going to extraordinary lengths to teach these three monks the “Our Father.”
We’re prone to think that form kills feeling, that everyone should make up their spirituality as they go along. But spiritual depth only comes when we allow ourselves to be fed by the deep wells of wisdom and experience of those who have gone before.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss the feeling because it’s lacking the form, or because it’s expressed in a form we don’t think is correct. In the end, it is the state of our hearts before God, and not being able to put it into sufficiently “churchy” language that counts. And make no mistake, every generation has its own “churchy” language. Just because we’re inclusive in our language and don’t use “thee” and “thou” doesn’t mean that our language automatically connects the heart to God.
We’re always wondering what people outside the church, especially young people, are “looking for.” “What do they want?” we ask. Studies show that what young people respond to most is authenticity. It doesn’t even matter so much if the language is hip as if they can tell that it’s authentic. If they perceive it as empty show, or as somebody’s attempt to dictate what is “correct,” they’ll smell it a mile away. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we know what authenticity means to them unless we’ve taken the time to listen to them.
That’s why the people who can “walk on water” are so important. They are the ones who can often communicate authenticity to the seeker, the visitor, the stranger. They’re easy to miss. Sometimes they are the quietest, most unassuming people around. Because they don’t know the inside language and habits, they might be on the margins of the church.
But they are a tremendous gift. And almost every church I know of has at least one or two of them, who like those unindoctrinated monks can “walk on water.” If we notice them, and learn to value their presence among us, we too will be “awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity.”