Walking on Water
Many and marvellous are the ways practised by those who seek spiritual enlightenment. According to the ancient historians, the holy men of India, the Gymnosophists, stood like storks on one leg, for days and weeks on end, till the unused limb withered, and lost all power to support its owner. Christian hermits separated themselves from human society, living in caves and deserts. They mortified their flesh to enlarge the soul; going in rags, beating themselves with scourges and stones, starving their bodies, and endlessly intoning prayers. The Dervishes of Arabia threw themselves into ecstatic trances by furiously whirling round and round, or by pronouncing over and over again a sacred formula, a set of sounds, whose repetition finally brought the mind to concentrate upon the idea of eternity itself.
The Arabs have a story about a teacher, who belonged to an austere and pious school of Dervishes. One day he was walking along the bank of a river, deep in contemplation of a great and difficult question in theology.
His meditation was interrupted by a loud voice, calling from a little island in mid-stream. The teacher stopped and listened. Again the voice rang out over the water. Someone was repeating a sacred formula of the Dervishes. But he was doing so incorrectly. The teacher frowned.
'There is no point in what that man is doing', he said to himself, 'because he is mispronouncing the syllables. Instead of intoning A HU, he is saying YA HU.'
He realised it was his duty to correct this unfortunate person, who might have lacked good teachers like himself, and was probably, in all ignorance, doing his best to tune his mind to the divine idea behind the sounds. So he hired a boat and rowed out to the island. There he found a reed hut, and sitting inside it was a man swaying backwards and forwards as he repeated the incantation.
'My friend,' said the teacher, 'you are mispronouncing the sacred phrase. It is my duty to tell you so; for there is merit for him who gives, and him who takes advice.' And he gave instructions on speaking the syllables correctly.
The man thanked him humbly, and the teacher got back into his boat, full of satisfaction at having done a good deed. After all, it was said that a person who repeated the sacred formula without fault could walk upon water . . . though he himself had never seen this done, by even the most pious member of his order.
He rowed away fron the island, sure that his lesson had been well taken. For several minutes there was no sound from the reed hut. Then he heard a faltering YA HU. It was the old error again. The teacher stopped rowing, and resting on his oars reflected upon the perversity of humankind, and its persistence in wrongdoing.
But as he floated there he saw the strangest sight. The man was coming towards him from the island, walking on the surface of the water! He made his way to the side of the boat, where he bowed and said, very humbly, 'My brother, forgive me, but I must ask you again the correct method of pronouncing the sacred syllables. I find it so hard to remember what you told me.'
As such a story suggests, the quality of a person's faith, his or her devotion to God, is not measured by correctness of behaviour, by getting the words right. And so often, under what is said, another thing is being expressed.
Like the teacher we have to learn to listen to that hidden language; the unspoken message. To hear the rightness under the wrong surface; the cry for help beneath the bluster; the expression of love concealed by the harshness of the voice; the young and tender need for belief, masquerading as scorn and doubt. Listen to the stumbling voice of faith, and you may hear someone walking on water.
© Colin Gibson