The Sufi poet Rumi tells the tale of a holy man who sees a snake crawl into a sleeping man’s mouth. Shouting, the holy man wakes the sleeper and forces him to eat rotten apples. He then makes the astonished man run for hours, whipping him as the man cries out in exhaustion. Finally the former sleeper collapsesand vomits up the snake. Immediately, the man realizes what has happened. I bless the moment you first noticed me, he cries to the holy man. I was dead and didn’t know it.... Everything I’ve said to you was so stupid! I didn’t know. The holy man explains, You might have panicked and died of fear...if I described the enemy that lives inside men.
Most of us (at least most readers of Catholic magazines) go about our lives feeling pretty sure we are not desperate sinners. We do not murder, embezzle or kidnap children. Our lies are milda few embellishments on the 1040or forgivable: What surprise birthday party? Our cruelties are unambitious: a coworker snubbed or a clerk snapped at. And most everything can be chalked up to tiredness or psychology or the bad weather.
Occasionally after a crisis, or just a sleepless night, we start to suspect there is something deeply wrongnot just with the world or life in general, but with ourselves. We don’t really know what it is. We can’t see it. And that feeling in the pit of our stomachsisn’t it just queasiness from the day’s spicy meal? Surely it is not something as cold and indifferent and poisonous as a snake.
The nagging suspicion grows. Why can’t we shake destructive patterns? Why do we keep yelling at the children about stuff that doesn’t matter? Why do we spend hours watching television, instead of working on the career change that would make us a better person? Why do we hurt the same people over and over? We never settle for less comfort. Why do we always settle for less kindness and honor and compassion?
The patterns are so ingrained, so a part of our daily lives, that they are almost impossible to recognize as dangerous. But every now and then, someone shouts to usand we realize there is something we have unwittingly or wittingly let in and fed.
Lenten sacrifices like fasting and giving something up are not about French fries. They are about paying attention, about looking directly at the waste and fatal sluggishness and venom that even decent folks have inside. They are about recognizing that something inside of us, left to its own devices, would choke off the best we can be.
During Lent, we watch that destructive being, try not to let it have its way. The snake within us wants too much food. We don’t eat too much. The snake wants money. We give money away. The snake wants our relationships neglected. We work on them. The snake wants us to keep drowsing in front of the television set, changing channels when the earthquake news comes onit’s the third earthquake this year, and you can give only so much! But we wake up, walk out the door and do something.
We made room for it before; now we have to squeeze the life out of it. If we cannot vomit the snake up, maybe we can starve it.
How long will it take? In the Rumi parable, it took just one agonizing afternoon for the sleeper to rid himself of the snake. But for entrenched patterns, weeks or even months are only the beginning. Smokers trying to quit talk about a hurdle daysometimes 21 days, sometimes less. If they can make it that long, they say, the hold the habit has on them will weaken. Perhaps the church fathers knew that six-and-a-half weeksthe standard 40 days of Lent sans Sundaysis a time period that works for us.
When, in the Apostle Paul’s words, we do exactly what we hate, we begin to sense for the first time the parasite for which we are the host body. But someone else has known about it all along, and has prodded ussometimes painfullyto purge ourselves of it. In the end, we will never know how deep the disorder goes. We must simply follow the lead of the one who does, even if it feels like dying.
In his poems, Rumi typically refers to Muhammad, Muslim saints and Old Testament figures like Moses and Joseph. Less frequently, he uses New Testament charactersMuslims believe in parts of the Gospel stories, but not all. Fittingly, who is the holy man who spots the snake and presses the sleeper to be rid of it?
It is Jesus.
[The title of this article in the printed version was "Polluted: Lenten Spirituality Reflection."]