READ: Psalm 137:1-4
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered our homeland of Zion. Upon the willows, there by the waters, we hung our harps. For it was there that our captors demanded of us songs, mockingly asking us, ‘Sing for us one of the songs of Zion.’ How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land?” – Psalm 137:1-4
“When Jesus saw Mary and Martha weeping, and those about them also weeping, Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled. …Jesus wept.” – John 11:32-35
“Upon the willows, there by the waters we hung our harps.” Conquered, captured and exiled, the people of Jerusalem wept by the rivers of Babylon, there mocked by their captors. One of the most poignantly human moments in Biblical history … when the songs they sang on Mount Zion in the city of Jerusalem were for a time left unsung. Such a sad image, this hanging of the harps on the weeping willow trees.
Down by the river that flows through Greyfriars’ Abbey, one comes upon the hermitage of Brother Stephanus, a simple cabin for a simple man. Here the old monk spends week after week in prayer and doing the work of his letter writing. You see Brother Stephanus has a ministry of writing compassionate letters to hurting souls all over the world. Each day, he prays for souls, especially lonely souls in hospitals and nursing homes around the world. An aspect of his praying is the thoughtful writing of letters using an old Parker fountain pen his mother gave him upon handmade, recycled paper. Each week, a bag of letters are delivered to Brother Stephanus and each week a bag of letters is taken away by the postman. Quite close to his hermitage is a lovely weeping willow whose branches appear to be kneeling into the river in quest of a sip of cool water. And I find it so divinely placed, that willow tree, weeping beside a man who spends his life wiping away tears of others and, at times, weeping the tears himself.
Humility is a central theme for the Benedictine Way, not only is it one of our Fundamentals, it is also descriptive of our essence. And what is humility? Humility is being honestly human and to be willing to be even more so. Humility – for me, at least, – has the feel of a willow tree, strong and enduring, but yet gentle and yielding. Humility is becoming self-aware of who you are in the midst of the universe. Humility is being able to laugh in response to the delights of life, especially one’s own foibles, and humility is being able to weep in response to the sometimes anguish of life.
An ancient monastic Abbot once counseled his young novices about humility in this way. “My young brothers, you must become as willow trees, beautiful wood that yields to the wind.” By this I believe that wise monk was trying to explain that pride is rigid and humility is flexible, pride tries to be strong, while humility is proven strong. The proud soul tries to endure by standing stubbornly in the wind until one day it finally breaks in the wind; while the humble soul endures by its willingness to yield to the wind without breaking,, no matter how hard the wind might blow. We call this spiritual process, the willowing of a soul. We gain humility by becoming as the willow tree. Our obedience is not an act of surrender, it is an act of yielding. Our humble obedience is not our becoming weak, to the contrary, it is our way of being strong. Our humble obedience and its deepening humility is our way of learning who we are, who we truly are, and who we are slowly becoming.
Sometimes I like to go sit within that willow tree that lives beside the river near the cabin of Brother Stephanus. Sometimes I go there to pray; sometimes I go there to weep; sometimes I go to do both. When I sit within the shaded embrace of those cascading branches and those delicate leaves I can hear the whispering of the willow when the slightest of breezes, a mere breath of wind, passes through. It is as if the wind gives the willow her voice. And sometimes, I hear the willow weeping. And because the willow weeps, I weep with her.
Jesus wept; God weeps, willows weep; and so do humble souls who have sensed the compassion of God. When the willow weeps, I sometimes weep. And when I weep, I sense the Lord weeps with me. But in time, we all eventually return to our laughter. My loved ones, weeping is an aspect of being human, and at least for now, it is also an aspect of being divine.
Many times, I find myself feeling as if I am a stranger living in a foreign land, so far from home. Sometimes I feel captive in a world of sarcasm, cynicism, greed, intolerance, bitterness, cruelty, fear, bigotry, cold indifference and heated hatred, and when I do, … I find my soul longing for Zion. Sometimes I feel like hanging my harp on the willow tree … but then I hear God whisper in my soul ...”Brother Anthony, come, let us sing one of our songs of Zion.”
Brother Anthony of the Cross