Softening our hearts
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: “Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake?” The old man said to them: “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.”
Regular pious practices, as important as they are to the awakening of spiritual consciousness in us, are not what the spiritual life is really about. In fact, these practices may become an obstacle to our full spiritual development. And that is not new news. Abba Poemen knew it in the third century, and did not shrink at the effort it would take to school people in the truth of it—even those who thought they were already spiritual.
With this story, legalism and false asceticism pale in the light of greater virtue. What Abba Poemen calls for here is the godliness of mercy and compassion and forgiveness, the very holiness that pious practices are meant to sow in us, and that rigidity for its own sake can never substitute. Nor does our failure to be unwaveringly faithful to the practice of them count against the value of those whose hearts are right even when their knees are weak. The number of people who have made Lenten resolutions over the centuries and then, in despair of perfection, gave up doing them after they broke them once, should have known Abba Poemen.
In the spiritual life, we are meant to prod our souls to regular discipline only so that in doing so our hearts will be softened to serve those whom Jesus served. The gentle Jesus wants clean hearts from us, not sacrifice, deep down basic commitment, not simply blue ribbons for winning the marathons we've made to make ourselves feel holy.