A spider's lessons in prayer
As I looked out to the congregation at the beginning of Mass last week I was intrigued to notice that a spider had spun a single thread from the top of the altar crucifix across to the tip of each of the arms. It was so fine that I am sure our sacristan could not have seen it. It wouldn't have lasted long if she had, for the sanctuary is cleaned and polished to perfection. Only when the occasional shaft of sunlight caught it did it become visible, impossibly fine and geometrically perfect, the gold cross framed by a silver triangular thread.
My first instinct was to brush it away, but it would look rather strange to the congregation if I began Mass by stroking the cross, so I resolved to leave it till
after Mass. Try as I might, I couldn't help seeing it every time I looked towards the congregation. It became something of a distraction, but the more I looked, the more wonderful it seemed, and the urge to sweep it away Lessened, so much so that I forgot about it. La and behold, the next day it was still there throughout Mass. I did, then, remember to brush it off, only to find that it had reappeared the following morning exactly as before, a thread linking the two arms of the cross to the tip.
Now, it was the Feast of St Anthony of Egypt, and I couldn't help thinking that to him and his like, the Desert Fathers, such a thing would have been regarded as a sign from God.
I don't mean "sign" in the superstitious sense of a divination. The essence of being a mystic, after all, is that you see signs of God's presence in everything. I mean it was characteristic of the Desert Fathers to draw a parable from such occurrences. I even began to wonder whether I hadn't read of some such story in
their writings. You know the kind of thing some young monk anxious to prove himself by lots of prayers and good works is told to watch a spider spinning a web and then it is pointed out to him that a spider's work is carried out silently and alone. So sure was I that such a story must exist, and then so anxious that I might be confusing St Anthony with Robert the Bruce, that I set to looking it up. I didn't find the story, but it didn't really matter.
I was familiar with St Anthony, but not. I have to confess, so familiar with St Pachomius, who is sometimes credited with being
the founder of the Christian eremitical life in the West because he wrote a rule for monks which St Jerome translated. I discovered Pachomius because he was originally a disciple of St Anthony, and his name you heard it here first is the name of a genus of jumping spider. The coincidence was gratifying.
As far as finding sermons in spiders goes, I was less successful, but my researches led me to discover one Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, who wrote: "The spider achieves more than Pythagoras. It never utters a single word and abstains from water as well as wine, living in this quiet fashion, never going outside or wandering about according to his fancy, always hard at work. Nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless, the Lord 'who dwells on high but looks on the lowly' , extends his Providence even to the spider, giving it food and causing tiny insects to fall into its web."
I felt bound to muse on my own parable of the
spider after that, and for what it's worth came up with several. The weekday Mass is a particular kind of business in the parish that goes on unseen and unnoticed to many people and ye is absolutely vital for our survival. It might took rathe: fragile compared to Sunday Mass when the church is full of people of all different ages, but actually it has proportionally a great strength, for it support the weight of the parish.
The spider gets on with its work silently and where the environment seems inimical it simply perseveres, startiq to spin the same shape over and over again. This particu lax one chose to spin his thread all unknowing, on the arms of the cross, thereby making me focus on it anew and reminding me that I must expect difficulty and challenge.
When work is relentless, and the demands seem new every day and grace seems thin and fragile compared with sin, I might remember the spider who gives glory to his creator by doing his humble, daily best; his duty let down from the cross.