Last Spring, a young man came to me asking me for insight into his vocational discernment. He said with great sincerity, “How can you love God well when you have a wife and children who distract you from giving yourself only to Him? You see, this is what tortures me, that I feel I have no option if I want to love God radically.” The poor young man, for the next two hours, received my torrential downpour response.
Mostly we spoke about the non-competitive meaning of creation vis-à-vis God in human fulfillment; about God’s choice to become Man as sealing this non-competitive meaning; about the nature of love in the Christian story; and about the irreducible diversity of vocations as preserving the fullness of love’s expression in the human race.
I ended our conversation with a beautifully simple story recounted by the Orthodox spiritual author, Anthony Bloom. When I first read it back in 1988, I found it terribly liberating as it somehow opened up in me a space to include in my love for God the thousand small things about life that I still loved. As I had fallen under the sway of some hyper-spiritual Moses friends who convinced me I had to renounce my very earthy ‘bowls of milk’ if I wanted to live for an immaterial God, this story seemed to me to be a key to unlatch the prison I felt I had entered.
Here’s the story:
In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies ‘This is God’s milk.’ Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says ‘I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as on offering to God.’
Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, ‘And does God drink it?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the shepherd, ‘He does.’ Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that He does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk. Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes, and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight towards the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.
The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. The shepherd says ‘You were right, God is pure spirit, and He doesn’t want my milk.’ Moses is surprised. He says ‘You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.’ ‘Yes, I do’ says the shepherd, ‘but the only thing I could do to express my love for Him has been taken away from me.’ Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard.
In the night in a vision, God speaks to him and says ‘Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.