As iron sharpens iron,
so man sharpens his fellow man.
One of the common explanations of monastic spirituality is that, living together year after year, our faults become so visible to each other that, eventually, each of our sharp edges is worn down. The sharp edges are, I think, our abrasive side, and the part where we look out for ourselves and our self-interest. Gradually, over time, we learn to look out for each other – and perhaps be less prickly.
What to make of this proverb, then? In ancient Hebrew technology, only iron was strong enough to make a sharp edge on another piece of iron. And those sharp edges were important – knives, saws, axes, nails! To get a sharp edge required heating and pounding with another iron implement. Quite a different perspective than the monastic gradual filing down.
Yet both deal with shaping us to be better – to remove any rough edges that catch things up, but keep a sharp edge. Most important, the saying s agree: it is not something one can do alone. Without the rough and striking encounters with my fellow human beings, I will never become the useful tool in God’s hand that I am designed to be.
As one face differs from another,
so does one human heart from another.