The Roman Catholic saint, John Vianney, was a simple parish priest in the French village of Ars in the early to mid 1800s. He was a gentle, patient and faithful parish priest, never seeking anything but the good of his flock. Because of his humility and his devotion to his people he has been named the patron saint of parish priests.
There are many stories told about Father Vianney. But the one I like most was told by him about one of his parishioners.
Father Vianney spoke of an old man who came into the church every day to pray. He would take his place in a pew and sit still for an hour or so. Father Vianney was intrigued by the man. He noticed he never had a prayer book. He never had a rosary. He lips never moved and he gave very few signals that he was praying.
One day, Father Vianney’s fascination got the best of him and as the old man left the church he stopped him. “What are you doing every day when you come into the church?” the priest asked.
“I am praying, Father,” the old man answered.
“But you have no prayer book, no rosary.”
“I am a poor man, Father. I am only a peasant.”
“Then tell me, how do you go about praying?”
The old man answered gently and sincerely, “I just look at God, and let him look at me.”
In today’s Old Testament reading we have an example of just that sort of approach to worship and prayer. But before I explain this, I want to give you a bit of background.
Today we have the story of Moses receiving the tablets of the Law. But this was not the first time Moses had received God’s Law. Several chapters before this, Moses is summoned to the mountain, and is given the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
Just as in this passage, Moses is on the mountain for an extended period of time. But in the earlier chapters,
when he descends the mountain to deliver the Law to his people, he finds them worshipping a golden calf. Moses, in a fit of righteous anger, smashes the tablets.
Today, we hear the story of God calling Moses back up the mountain to receive another set of tablets.
What struck me about this passage is something peculiar in the very first sentence. We are told, The LORD said to Moses “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.”
That may seem fairly straightforward but look at the beginning of God’s summons again, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there . . . ”
Now let us consider this for a moment, God clearly knew what He had in mind for Moses. He calls Moses up to receive the tablets. Why, then, does he call Moses to wait? Why couldn’t God just call Moses up to the mountain and give him the tablets without having Moses wait?
The answer to this question, I believe, can be found in the Hebrew of this text. Let me offer you an alternative translation to this summons, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there . . . ’”
The operative verb here is not really to wait, it is to be. God is calling Moses to simply be present, simply to be, on the mountain before he ascends to receive the Law again.
Moses was not asked to purify himself. Moses was not asked to pray, or fast, or confess, or to do anything else. He was asked to be, to sit still and have his being in God.
Why? It seems to me this was an extended lesson for Moses. It seems to me this would have clearly brought home the first law of spirituality: There is a God and it is not you. By waiting, by sitting, by being, just being, in the presence of God, Moses was reminded that he served God. He had no power, no answers nor authority outside of God.
This is a scary, even terrifying, lesson. I am sure I am not the only one here today that does not want to hear such a thing. I am also sure that I am not the only one here today that knows how true this teaching is. In my experience, the spiritual life is a pendulum swinging between humility before God and our dance with our pride’s folly.
I am not sure we can ever overcome the tension between seeking God’s will and seeking our own. That is, after all, part of the human condition. Though we may not be able to overcome such stumbling blocks. we are still called to try.
How? I think by being like Moses, by being like the old peasant of Ars. I think each of us would do well from time to time just to sit and let God look at us while we look at him.
In doing so we will begin to see that we are beloved children of a wondrous God. We will being to see that our lack of answers, our lack of control or authority, is not a sign of being weak, but a sign of being human.
In the end that is all God wants us to be. That is how God created us. We are created human and are expected to be human. At times, the best way to approach God is not with prayers or confessions, or offerings but simply to sit quietly and let God marvel in his wonderful creation.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni