God's milk and the little gifts that speed grace
I am currently reading Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray. It’s a fascinating little book with so many valuable nuggets on each page that it’s hard to excerpt, but so far, this is my favorite:
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 into a 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 posess, and I bring it as an 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 toward 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.”
There are so many lessons in this little story that you could think on it for a very long time. Our small expressions of love are pleasing to God, no matter how humble; they contribute to the good of others. He uses even our smallest and most humble gifts to bless others, all without our knowing. No matter how much we think we know about God, we are only beginning to learn.
The shepherd’s woe at losing his best means of demonstrating his love to God reminds me of the man with the Italian ice barrow who would give free ices to the nuns walking past him. When the sisters stopped wearing their habits, he could no longer tell them from the rest and so lost his chance to demonstrate his love in that little way.
Do we get in the way of other’s gift-giving because we think the gifts are too small, or too foolish? Do we refuse to give gifts we think are insufficient, because we are ashamed of their smallness? Does our pride — or our bashfulness — make it difficult for others to gift us?
In all of these ways, when we inhibit gift-giving, we get in the way of simple goodness working in the world, and spreading outward, and then we get in the way of grace.
Our sacrifices are acceptable gifts to God, offered in the love of a shepherd offering a humble bowl of milk to pure spirit. And with God’s grace, our egos, our more “sophisticated” understandings — which all belong to our brokenness — will not lessen their value.
Elizabeth Scalia is editor-in-chief of Aleteia’s English edition.