A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Seven Spiritual Lessons from a Thief

By Victor Parachin

During the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol (1718-1800) was travelling through the Ukraine on a unique and important mission. He was carrying a significant amount of money with which he planned to release captive Jews held prisoner by Cossack militias. En route, he stopped at an inn for the night. Because the innkeeper had stepped out for a few minutes, the Rabbi walked through the public rooms and, in one, saw a large cage containing a variety of birds. Studying them carefully, he realised the creatures wanted to be free.

Reflecting on his mission which was to free enslaved Jews, Rabbi Zusya spoke to himself: “Here you are walking to free prisoners but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be at this present moment than to free these birds from their prison.” So he opened the cage and birds eagerly flew out into freedom.

When the innkeeper returned and saw what the Rabbi had done, he became enraged screaming: “You fool! How could you have the stupidity to rob me of my birds and make worthless the good money I paid for them?” Rabbi Zusya, knowing the innkeeper to be an observant Jew, responded: “You have often read and repeated these words in the psalms, ‘The Lord is good to all, he has compassion on all he has made.’ ”(Psalm 145:9, New International Version) That response only further infuriated the innkeeper who physically attacked the Rabbi before throwing him out of the inn. The account concludes that Rabbi “serenely” continued on his way.

Rabbi Meshullam Zusya was an early and highly influential Hasidic Rabbi. Though he never authored a book, his teachings were collected and recorded by his students who appreciated his unique ability to glean lessons from all aspects of life - the good and the bad. On one day when he learned that a synagogue had been burgled, Zuysa met with his students and used that incident to teach them seven spiritual lessons from a thief. Here are the Rabbi's seven spiritual lessons from a thief.

1. Be discreet. Just as a thief works quietly without others knowing, developing one's spiritual life requires activities which are largely solitary: prayer, meditation, study, reflection, meeting privately with a spiritual teacher. When time is not made for these spiritual practices, there will be no spiritual advancement. This view is supported by Jesus who said: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6, New International Version)

2. Be fearless. Just as a thief is willing to take risks and place himself into an uncomfortable situation, spiritual evolution requires courage. Spiritual growth is greatly facilitated when we move out of our safe, familiar comfort zones. Psychiatrist Abigail Brenner, MD, notes: “Challenging yourself pushes you to dip into and utilise your personal store of untapped knowledge and resources. You have no idea what you’re made of unless and until you venture outside of your own familiar world. Taking risks, regardless of their outcomes, are growth experiences. Even if you make mistakes or don’t get it right the first time those become experiences you can tap into in the future. There really is no such thing as ‘fail’ if you get something out of the experience.”

3. Be mindful. Just as a thief pays attention to specifics, it is being mindful to the smallest of details which can result in the largest spiritual gains. Regina Chow Trammel, a social work professor at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian university in Southern California defines mindfulness as the “awareness of the present moment, being still, and practicing meditation” and says mindfulness is an antidote to the often frenzied pace of life that has emerged with new technologies. Trammel encourages Christians to incorporate mindfulness as part of their spiritual practice. She explains: “When we sit at God’s feet and open up space in our bodies, our minds, our spirits, Christ will work. As the Psalmist promises, ‘He searches us and knows us and will point out any wayward way within us.’ (Psalm 139) Decluttering our thoughts makes room for God to speak.”

4. Be patient. Just as a thief can take months evaluating and preparing before seeing results, spiritual growth is a gradual, cumulative, experience. Patience is a sign of wisdom just as the ability to wait for a desired result is an indicator of spiritual maturity. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen writes: “Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing,’ it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.” And, St. Francis de Sales reminds us: “Have patience with all things, but first of all with yourself.”

5. Be enthusiastic. Just as a thief is eager, excited by the results his activity will produce, commitment to spiritual evolution must be combined with enthusiasm for the process. Enthusiasm is promoted in scripture. Some examples include: Colossians 3:23 - “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 - “ Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Romans 12:11 - “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour.” Enthusiasm is important for several reasons. It powers us to push through life’s challenges; it generates motivation to take action; it sustains focus and commitment.

6. Be optimistic. Just as a thief is completely confident he will succeed in his endeavour, pursuing spiritual expansion ought to be based on the strong foundation of self-confidence and trust in God. “ Nothing paralyses our lives like the attitude that things can never change. We need to remind ourselves that God can change things. Outlook determines outcome. If we see only the problems, we will be defeated; but if we see the possibilities in the problems, we can have victory” says Rev. Warren Wiersbe.

7. Be persistent. Just as a thief tries again and again when one attempt doesn't work out, the same perseverance must be applied to spiritual growth and especially when it feels dry and empty. Persistence is a powerful virtue consistently acknowledged by those with spiritual wisdom. Some examples include:

• “Our motto must continue to be perseverance. And ultimately I trust the Almighty will crown our efforts with success.”- William Wilberforce 

• “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

• Do not abandon yourselves to despair. “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” - Pope John Paul II

• “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”- Maya Angelou

Rabbi Zusya's lessons from a thief are a powerful reminder that the world is our teacher. We are here to learn from everything life brings us and through those experiences grow, evolve and experience freedom. Master Cheng Yen offers the same perspective when she states: "Everything in this great universe is a lesson for us to learn. Everything is part of the dharma and moral cultivation."

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