Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Arsenios

“Abba Daniel tells us that Abba Arsenios related the following, supposedly about someone else, but actually in reference to himself:

“While a certain elder was sitting in his cell, he heard a voice say to him, ‘Come, so that I can show you what people do.’ So he got up and went immediately out of his cell. The voice then led him to a place where he was shown an Ethiopian, who was cutting wood and placing it in a big pile. He tried to pick up the pile, but he could not. And instead of taking away from the pile, he just cut more wood and added to it. And this continued for a long time. Then, proceeding farther on, he was shown a man who was standing beside a well, drawing water. But he was emptying it into a cistern full of holes, and thus the water was running back into the well. Then he was further told: ‘Come, and I will show you something else.’ He saw a church and two horsemen, who were carrying a piece of wood, one at each end of it. They wanted to enter through the portals of the church, but they could not, since they were holding the board sideways. One would not humble himself to the other, so as to let him go in first, and thereby to put the board in the right position to enter. Therefore, they remained outside the church.

“The voice said: ‘These men are those who take a proud stand, thinking they should act in such a manner, without becoming humble in order to correct themselves and walk the lowly path of Christ. Thus, they remain outside the Kingdom of God.’

” ‘As for the man cutting wood, he is like a very sinful man. Instead of repenting, he adds sins to his sins. Finally, the man who was taking water from the well is like a person who does good deeds, yet, since he defiles them with bad intentions, wastes both his good deeds and his gain.’

“So, every person must be vigilant in all that he does, so that his efforts are not in vain.”

This Saying provides its own reflection. 

I am reminded of something by C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis once provided a powerful image of the difference between heaven and hell. He described hungry people sitting at a huge banquet loaded with delicious food. Every person had a meter-long fork and knife attached to their hands (that’s about three feet long). The scene in hell was one of anger, frustration, and fighting as people scrambled to feed themselves. They could reach the food with the long knives and forks, but they were too long to feed themselves. The conflict, screaming, and unfulfilled hunger continued for eternity–that is hell.

But the scene in heaven was quite different. The same tables were loaded with food, and the people had the same long forks and knives attached to their hands. But instead of chaos and conflict, there was joy, laughter, and pleasant conversation. The difference? In heaven, the diners weren’t trying to feed themselves. Each person was patiently taking the food and feeding the person seated across the table.

C.S. Lewis concluded that people who spend all their lives trying to fulfil their own selfish desires are already experiencing a kind of hell. But those who live a life of service to others will find themselves at home in heaven. They had learned the joy of service on earth, and now they had eternity to enjoy it, only more so.

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