I recently read a story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers about a monk who had moved out to the desert as a young man. He lived a life of hard labor, tedious routine and asceticism. Part of the rigors of his life involved him having to walk many miles every day to get water, then carry the filled and heavy jar back to his desert abode.
After many years of this, he was old and tired. He wondered if he should just give up this life and move back to civilization. As he was plodding along through the sand and the blistering heat, contemplating leaving this vocation, he turned around and saw someone following him, counting his footprints.
The monk asked him, “Who are you?”
“‘I am an angel of the Lord, and I am sent to count your footprints and give you your reward.’
“And when he heard him, the old man’s heart was stout, and himself more ready, and he set his cell still farther from the water.”
As I read this, I thought of how every vocation has its wearying, repetitive aspects. There is much monotony in living any type of life on this earth. No matter how lofty or exciting someone’s job or vocation seems, people still need to get out of bed in the morning, find some food to eat, water to drink, take care of whatever responsibilities fill the day. Much of our work can be mundane and seemingly void of lasting meaning.
I think of women I have counseled over the years who are in the season of raising young children. Over and over I’ve heard varying themes of: “I want to make a difference in this world. I’m tired of wiping noses, cleaning up spills and messes, doing endless loads of laundry.”
Or I think of priests and religious I have been in conversation with, at times doubting whether their work has any real value or is truly helping anyone. Isaiah the prophet felt the same way, “I have toiled in vain, I have used up my strength for nothing.” (Isaiah 49:4)
The problem is that we see don’t see things like God sees them. We are so influenced by what our society or culture deems useful or productive or worthwhile. What beautiful imagery in this story from the Desert Fathers to help us realize the value and worth of persevering in one’s personal vocation.
Perseverance and constancy have tremendous value. Only in heaven will we see the far-reaching effects of what our ploddings and repetitive tasks, done with love and cheerfulness, have wrought in this world.
Psalm 56:8 “You have taken account of my wandering, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in Your book?”
When it feels like “what’s the point?” and discouragement sets in, let’s stop and reflect that there might be angels unseen counting our footsteps.
Or perhaps counting every dish we have washed and put away.
[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward, editor (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975).]