Many centuries ago a holy abbot named Anastasius was in charge of a monastery in Egypt. This particular monastery had an impressive library of manuscripts, one of which was a rare volume worth a fortune. One day a young monk was visiting from another monastery; he had chosen a monastic lifestyle not so much out of religious conviction, but out of a desire for a relatively safe and easy life during a difficult era of history. He discovered the volume and, unable to resist the temptation, hid it beneath his robe and then hurried away. However, the theft was almost immediately discovered and reported to Anastasius. It was easy enough to guess the identity of the thief, but the holy abbot didn’t send anyone after the visitor, for fear that he would add to his sin by denying he had stolen the rare manuscript. Meanwhile the thief was trying to sell the volume, and a wealthy man was interested—but he asked the monk to leave it with him for a day, so that he might have its worth evaluated. This man hurried to the monastery and showed the book to Anastasius, saying, “A monk wants to sell this to me for five gold coins. Father Anastasius, you’re knowledgeable about books, so tell me: is it worth that much?” The abbot, of course, recognized the volume as the stolen item, but he merely replied, “It’s worth much more than five gold coins.” The rich man thanked him and left.
When the young monk returned to him the next day, the man told him, “I’ll gladly pay you the five gold coins you requested, for the expert I consulted told me it’s a fair price.” The monk was overjoyed, and asked, “Which expert did you consult?” “Anastasius the abbot,” was the response. The thieving monk turned pale, and stammered, “What else did he say?” “Nothing,” was the response. The monk was amazed and ashamed, and realized the abbot had refused to lay claim on what belonged to him so as to avoid getting his visitor into trouble. No one had ever before treated him with such love and concern, so in a determined voice he told the rich man, “I’ve changed my mind; the manuscript isn’t for sale,” and taking it with him, went back to the monastery. There, with tears in his eyes and his head lowered in shame, he handed it back to Anastasius. “Keep it,” said the abbot, “for when I learned you had borrowed it, I decided to give it to you.” “No, Father,” replied the repentant thief; “it belongs here—but I ask this of you instead: let me remain here the rest of my days, that I may learn true wisdom from you.” Anastasius granted this request, and in the years which followed, his saintly example helped the former thief discover and pursue true wisdom and holiness (William J. Bausch, An Anthology of Saints, p. 41). We are placed on this earth so that we might learn to seek after heavenly treasure—and only if we’re willing to do this will our lives be a success.
Our Lord’s parables of the treasure buried in a field and the pearl of great price are a reminder that membership in the Kingdom of Heaven is of infinite value, and worth whatever sacrifices we have to make. It’s very easy for us to forget this truth, however, for we are constantly struggling against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Satan, as the prince of this world, uses earthly allurements to deceive and distract us, and because of our fallen human nature and our personal sinfulness, it’s very easy for us to give into temptation and foolishly act against our true best interests. That’s why God was so pleased with young King Solomon when he avoided this trap by asking for wisdom. As St. Paul tells us, “all things work for good for those who love God.” If our love for God is real, we’ll want to please Him; by trying to please Him, we will grow in wisdom, and the wiser we become, the easier it will be for us to listen to the Holy Spirit and make those choices which bring us true peace in this life, while also preparing us for eternal happiness.
A young man about to start his own business asked for advice from a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, and the wise business executive told him, “Be careful that the urgent doesn’t crowd out the important” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 317). All of us have urgent things going on in our lives—probably not anything of earth-shattering significance, but certainly urgent in terms of our own schedules and routines: bills to pay, phone calls or texts to return, errands to run, and the like. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with keeping very busy and multi-tasking and making lengthy “to do” lists—unless and until we become so busy we have no time for loved ones, no time for adequate rest and exercise and recreation, and above all, no time for God. The so-called “urgent” things of life are sometimes the devil’s sly attempt to hijack our priorities and keep us from being quiet and attentive in the Lord’s presence. That’s why God may sometimes allow bad things to happen to us: not to punish us, but because it’s the only way He has of getting our attention and compelling us to remember our need for Him and think about our need to prepare ourselves for our eternal destiny.
If we were to sit down and make a list of all the things we have to do each week, and then a second list of all the things that are truly important to us, how much overlap would there be? I would hope all of us would have at least three items on both lists: spending time with loved ones as much as possible, spending time with God in prayer or Scripture reading each day, and spending time each weekend worshipping Him here as part of a faith community. Most of the supposedly urgent things clamoring for our attention really aren’t going to matter when we enter into eternity—but our loved ones, and our faith in God and our loving relationship with Him, will at that point matter very much. One of the worst discoveries anyone can make at the end of his or her life is that he or she spent the previous years and decades pursuing the wrong priorities, and as a result has little or nothing spiritually valuable and worthwhile to present to God. For that to happen to us would be one of the greatest tragedies imaginable; it would be as if the thieving young monk had refused to repent and had valued a few gold coins more than wisdom and holiness. Fortunately, as a result of the loving and merciful example of Abbot Anastasius, he came to his senses in time, thereby ensuring that his life was not tragically wasted or empty and unhappy. We too are called to pursue the treasure of great price—and Our Lord promises that those who do so will truly become rich in God’s sight.