Zeno and the Way

A favorite Western counterpart to the story recounted by the Japanese Zen master Bassui (see June 14) is about Zeno, a Christian desert hermit, and runs like this:

In a certain village lived a man who fasted so much that he was called “the Faster.” Abba Zeno, hearing of him, had him come and visit, which the Faster did with alacrity. So together they sat down to pray in silence. This silence must have gone on for a little while, for the Faster grew restless until he finally told Zeno that he wanted to leave. Zeno asked why. The Faster said: “My heart is on fire. I don’t know what is the matter with me. When I am in the village and fast until nightfall, nothing like this ever happens to me.” The old man Zeno replied quietly, “That is because in the village you are fed through your ears. Go now, but from now on eat at the ninth hour and whatever you do, do it in secret.”

And so it happened that soon the Faster could not wait even until that hour to take a meal. He lost the esteem of the villagers, who had filled his ears with plaudits. They dismissed him now as possessed by a devil. When the Faster went to Zeno to tell him all this, Zeno replied, “This way is according to God.”

To be fed by the crowd and suspend natural virtues for the flattery and adulation of others is to deny the value of any virtue. It is better to conform to nature than to posture and pretend to virtue before others. Humility and self-effacement are better than the false esteem of others. Silence and solitude, like fasting, can have no end but rather are a means to a way or path that is — however we construe it — “according to God.”