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Pay no heed to scorn or praise, there is need of only one thing

      Long, long ago and in a land far, far away lived a holy and wise man named Jonathan. Though he lived deep in the forest, pilgrims frequently sought his isolated house of field stone in order to seek his wisdom and to ask for his advice on how to draw closer to God.

      One day a young woman named Phoebe arrived at Jonathan’s doorstep. She knocked three times. When Jonathan opened the door, Phoebe saw standing before her an old man slightly bent over and leaning on a cane. His beard was grey and long, but his eyes were moist and sharp.

      The old man invited the young woman into his home.

      “What can I do for you?” Jonathan asked.

      “Tell me,” the young woman replied, “How I can be saved?”

      The old man nodded, thought a moment, and said, “You know that cemetery at the north edge of the forest?”

      “I do.”

      “Go there and curse the dead.”

      So Phoebe left the wise old man’s house and scurried to the cemetery. When she arrived, she cursed those lying in the tombs. She shook her fist in umbrage at them, and she worked herself up to such a lather that she hurled rocks and sticks at the headstones.

      Upon returning to Jonathan’s house, the old man asked Phoebe if she had carried out what he had told her to do.

      “I did,” she said, “and with relish!”

      “Good, good. Did they say anything to you in their own defense? Take exception to your curses?”

      “No,” Phoebe replied, “not a word in protest.”

      Old Jonathan nodded. “Tomorrow,” he said, “go back to that same cemetery and praise them,” and the old man dismissed Phoebe for the evening.

      The next day Phoebe returned to that same cemetery. “O, you who sleep here!” Phoebe cried, her arms outstretched over the cemetery. “How wonderful you were in life! Paragons of holiness, vanguards of virtue! Would that we in this vale of tears imitate thee!”

      Phoebe scampered back to Jonathan’s house. When she arrived at the old man’s doorstep, she pounded on the door. “Wise sir!” she cried, “Wise sir! Open up, please!”

      “Yes?” said Jonathan upon opening the door. He remained standing in the doorway; he did not invite Phoebe inside.

      “I did as you instructed,’ Phoebe said. “I praised those folks lying in that cemetery.”

      “The same cemetery you previously cursed?” Jonathan asked.


      “Did they answer you? Thank you for your kind words? Offer you praise in return?”

      “No, they did not.”

      Jonathan nodded, but this time he smiled as well. His teeth were crooked and stained. “So,” he began, “you hurled insults at them, and they did not reply. You lavished praise upon them, and they spoke not in return.”

      “Yes, that is true,” Phoebe answered.

      “If you wish to be saved, then,” said Jonathan, “you too must become like those dead in the cemetery. Pay no heed to the scorn of others, nor soak in their praises, either.”

      And Jonathan stepped back into his house and closed the door.

*   *   *

      That little story is a paraphrase of one of the sayings of the desert fathers, stories and aphorisms from the fourth and fifth centuries that circulated among the monks and hermits in Egypt and points east (check out “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” edited by Benedicta Ward, for many more fabulous little stories).

      We are now celebrating Advent. The Nativity of the Lord is just around the corner. You undoubtedly have been bombarded with advice and suggestions from parish and friends as to how to worthily celebrate those two seasons. Perhaps your parish has offered those little booklets of reflection for your use during the season. I have one additional idea to throw out at you.

      Be deaf to those who malign you. Ignore those who praise you. Both are snares to your self-image and to your pride. Instead, listen and live what Jesus says to Martha: “There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42).

      That is the Lord Jesus.

      Church of Gary, have a blessed Advent and a holy Christmas season.


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, I'll. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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