It was still very early in the morning when I met the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, in the refectory. He was alone and enjoying a generous slice of oatcake accompanied by a mug of coffee. He smiled when he saw me and motioned for me to sit beside him. I filled a mug and settled down at the table. Before we could start a conversation on any subject, another monk appeared. He was in his first period of studies in the Order. Like everyone else, he would spend about a month dedicated to studies, reflections and debates in the monastery. For the rest of the year, he would be at home with his family and with his professional duties. In the Order, people´s expertise varied from bakers to aerospace engineers; men and women from the most varied corners of the planet, of various ethnicities and ages. Very young, this monk was quite intelligent and had been restless for days. Without warning, he told the Elder that he would leave that morning, before completing even a week of studies. He confessed that, although he admired that environment, where knowledge seemed to spring up from between the stones of the secular walls, some friends were spending their holidays in Thailand and he was determined to go and meet them. However, he would like to return to the Order the following year, or perhaps the next, he said. The Elder offered a sincere smile before getting up to give him a strong hug. Then he put him at ease, as those who possess the virtue of delicacy do, “I understand your choice. If age my permitted, I would perhaps go with you.” The boy laughed. Then he continued, “The doors of the monastery will always be open, both to you and to anyone else who is willing to use philosophy and metaphysics as tools of evolution. Come back when your heart asks for it”. The young man thanked him for his understanding, assured him he would return one day, spun on his heels and left. I took a sip of coffee and then commented that the young man was wasting a wonderful opportunity. The Elder disagreed: “Each has his own time and way of learning. There are many workshops in the world forging good masters. There is no difference in quality between them. What will always be decisive is the apprentice’s commitment to transmuting his own reality”.
I said that study was indispensable for evolution. The monk pondered: “In part, yes. Knowledge is an extremely useful tool for expanding consciousness. However, without love you won’t go far”.
“I often see many people getting lost along the paths of existence. People full of knowledge, empty of love.” He paused as if bringing to mind a distant memory and added: “In order for transformation occur, the willingness to live deep experiences is paramount, without which all knowledge will be of little value.”
“Take a look at the experience of motherhood or fatherhood, for example. One can read all the books on how to bring up children, study child psychology, apply modern methods of pedagogy, without the experience being revolutionary to the soul. For this, love will be indispensable.” It was my turn to disagree. I maintained that almost all parents love their children. The Elder explained with his usual kindness, “Yes, they do. However, we know very little about this feeling… love. The most talked about virtue is also the least known.”
“There are levels of love. From not wishing harm on someone to being able to love another as oneself, love goes through many evolutionary portals. Take, for example, when a child falls ill. For some parents, sleepless nights are a mere annoyance; for others, though never wanted, they become deep experiences. Will and dedication have an obvious influence on healing. Both for the child and for the parents”.
The parents? I found this strange. Wasn’t it the children who were ill? The Elder explained: “In this process, when well used, while the children are healed in the body, the parents attain healing of the soul”. He took a sip of coffee to continue: “In deep experiences the perceptions regarding the values of life change; the perspective and choices change. There is no fatigue that can stop parents from being there, beside their child. There is no greater commitment that makes them abandon their watch or lose patience with the typical indispositions of a sick child. For some it will be a night rich in wisdom and love; at that moment they can begin to understand that love is not an exchange; love is born in the sowing of the desired harvest. We offer the exact fruit that nourishes us without demanding anything in return. Thus, love becomes a possible and real experience, not just verses in sacred literature. A feeling of infinite possibilities, which allows us to achieve an immeasurable and liberating power, as we extend it beyond children and family. However, for those who do not possess that perspective, it will be just a lost night where they were deprived from their sleep.”
He nibbled on a piece of cake and added, “Don’t think that the experience with children is the only road. That goes for all the difficult situations we are led to face. When faced with a mere obligation, any difficulty is nothing but a big nuisance. However, when there is commitment, not only to overcome that moment, but to overcome ourselves, we come across a deep experience and its enormous transformative force.
We were interrupted by Anne’s entrance into the refectory. She was a nun who has been studying in the Order for many years. Although she was almost eighty, a few years younger than the Elder, despite her many wrinkles, her face bore traces of undeniable beauty. There is a vitality that, as time goes by, when we know how to deal with, is transferred from the soul to the body. Her lectures were very well attended, inside and outside the monastery. The differences between love and passion was her favourite subject. As with the Elder, I appreciated Anne’s serenity and capacity of decision-making in the face of the common crises that occurred in the monastery, resulting in problems considered serious to be solved in a simple and surprising way. Everything is a matter of people understanding whether they are moving out of passion or out of love, she never ceased of teaching. Even in spiritualised places, such as in a monastery, shadows can manifest themselves. It is necessary for someone, even a single person, to light a torch of light to dispel the darkness. The Elder was like that; so was she. Anne was a beautiful person.
Anne greeted us with a smile and gestured with her hand so that we would not interrupt the conversation or worry about her. She filled a mug with coffee and, discreetly and so as not to get in the way, sat down at a table on the other side of the refectory, far away from us, not before exchanging a quick look of complicity with the Elder. A look that I had already noticed on other occasions, but did not know the origin or the reason.
I asked him to continue. The Elder said: “That’s why tragedies exist”. I was startled. I said that I did not understand. The good monk explained: “We need deep experiences to evolve. That is why we are in the world. In order not to waste the journey, we have to leave better than we arrived. However, through carelessness or lack of understanding, we end up getting involved with many things and committing to none.”
“Evolving is hard work and takes effort. Falling down, understanding the tumble, getting up and learning how to walk differently. Or, even before the stumble, understanding that it is possible to walk differently and better. With less and less weight, a little lighter every day”.
I asked what that weight would be. The Elder explained: “The weight imposed by the shadows of ignorance, selfishness and fear. The weight of pride, vanity, jealousy, greed, senseless desires and painful memories.” As if guessing the next question, he anticipated: “Do you want to get rid of this weight? Use the virtues, they are sub-types of love. Put increasing doses of love in every gesture, word or choice.
“To evolve is to change skin like the snake does; it is still a snake, but it is no longer the same, because it has become bigger and stronger. As for us, I am not talking about muscles, I am talking about the soul. More important than destroying the walls is to learn to see how small they are. Thus, flying over them.”
“To evolve is to expand consciousness and to expand the capacity to love. Wisdom and love, together, like an unbreakable link. Awareness is summed up in the knowledge that each person has about themselves and how that alters the way they interact with everything and everyone around them, modifying reality. To love is to seek the seeds of life, the virtues, in the core of one’s being to transform the desert of an existence into a garden.”
“It is not easy to change one’s skin. It is frightening to have to tear off the armour that imprisons the being in itself for the reinvention of the self. A different and better individual, more sophisticated by its greater simplicity. We deny, we avoid and, if you pay attention, you will realize that we run away from the countless opportunities that life offers. Remember: there is no transformation without love. We suffer for moving away from the feeling we most desire. A pure paradox.”
“He looked me in the eye and fired off, “To love will always be the deepest of all experiences.”
“However, we are not always attentive or willing to dive into the abyssal regions of being. To rummage through the drawers of suffering memories, to clean each one of them, to put them in the window so that the sun of forgiveness, of humbleness, of compassion and of understanding can illuminate them forever. So that they no longer need to hide uncomfortable secrets, as if they were the scene of a film that we are afraid to see again. Each one of these memories will show who I once was, but am no longer. I am the same, but different; I have grown. I need to understand myself to love myself; I need to love myself to be able to love the world. When we refuse to live this indispensable experience, life presents us with a tragedy. Like a good teacher who teaches the pupil with the necessary severity the exact lesson that he is ready for but insists on avoiding.”
“Do I need tragedy in my learning? No. Pain is not indispensable to evolution. Suffering only presents itself when I distance myself from myself. Every time this happens, I distance myself from love. Tragedy is a life’s attempt to remind me of forgotten or unknown love. It is life bringing me closer to my essence by awakening the best that I carry within me”.
“Personal tragedies are huge disasters for the fool. For the wise they will always be valuable learnings. In truth, bad experiences only exist when the lessons are wasted.”
At that moment I noticed another quick exchange of glances between Anne and the Elder. From where she was sitting, she couldn’t hear our conversation, but it was as if a message had been sent. I stopped and looked at the two of them. An inquisitive look, wanting to know what they were talking about through the silence. They laughed. The Elder motioned for Anne to sit at the table with us.
He asked if she remembered Monique’s story. She said yes with a movement of her head. The Elder asked Anne to tell it. The nun was generous. She said that Monique, a German girl, had lost her parents in World War II. She went to live in an orphanage run by nuns, where they offered little study, hard work and no love. At night she would sneak into the small library of the convent attached to the orphanage to read books that showed the possibility of a different reality than the one she knew. However, Monique had the feeling that the love told in the stories was a fiction. Although one part of her felt it and desired it, the other believed that love did not exist. When she came of age, she showed no interest in joining the religious life. She was forced to leave the orphanage. Dropped off at the railway station with enough money for a ticket and a suitcase with a few clothes, she chose to embark for a city whose name sounded familiar to her, Munich.
Soon, she went to work as a servant in the house of a very rich lady who, enchanted by the girl’s beauty, showed Monique a lifestyle she had heard of but never thought of knowing. Parties, expensive clothes and drinks, flattery and compliments, an environment of seduction and money: luxury prostitution. Without delay, the young woman began to enjoy a world where relationships were ephemeral and superficial, but which provided her with a type of material comfort that until then she believed was unattainable. She let her shadows dance on the bubbles of the champagne she was drinking. Her soul? She was sure she didn’t need it. When she remembered her days in the orphanage, she thanked life for the luck that had surprised her. She was so successful and famous that she was invited to move to Zurich, Switzerland, where she would serve a clientele of millionaire international bankers. She was convinced that she was a lucky person.
On the train journey from Germany to Switzerland, she shared a cabin with a young man, about her age, who had finished college in England and was taking a sabbatical year to think about angular questions about his life purpose and reasons for existence. He told the girl about the gift and the dream he had for himself; of how this made him glad to jump out of bed early every morning. Monique wanted to know what he was referring to when he talked about dreams and gifts. The boy explained that it was about having a strong purpose in life and developing a talent that made you special. He added that we all have gifts and dreams, however we get used to not believing in them or their powers. Exercising the gift and living the dream provide bright and full days; they bring meaning to life. Each small conquest, even the smallest advance, makes the soul participate in the great symphony of the universe. Thus, we find the beauty that exists within us and, consequently, in the world. Monique thought about the powerful men she knew and made fun of that naïve boy who believed in nonsense like dreams and gifts. Sex, money and prestige were the cogs of the world. She knew this very well. Life had taught her what was good and bad.
As they said goodbye, the boy left her a calling card with his telephone number. The girl, who considered all that conversation a waste of time, for some strange reason did not throw it away. In Zurich she became the companion of a famous European politician. One day she had a disagreement with him. They argued and he beat her up. Bruised both in body and soul, she asked her mistress and other men she had served for help. One by one, all the doors closed to her. Monique, without knowing it, had crossed a dangerous frontier for those who live around the worldly aristocracy; she had dared, even for a single day, to be herself and not just obey the wishes of others. More seriously, she had broken a capital rule that prevented her from returning to the game. Although an adult, she had returned to the days of abandonment. It was like at the end of a show, when the curtains close and we realise that everything we saw was just an illusion. A story that propelled us nowhere and, though without realising it, kept us helpless and fragile the whole time. But while it lasted, it made us believe that we possessed a power that, in truth, never existed. The typical ephemerality of the spectacles provided by misplaced egos that are distant from the soul. The days of incomprehension came, and therefore, a lot of anger and sorrow. Then came sadness and depression.
I interrupted to say that, without a doubt, this had been a deep experience. Anne corrected me: “This was Monique’s personal tragedy. Wait to hear how she will deal with the facts. This will define whether the story will become a deep experience or another sad narrative on the surface, like so many that exist in the world.”
“Monique felt like a victim of circumstances. All that was left for her to do was to ply her profession in the dark and lugubrious alleys of the city. It was very painful. This brought her resentment and sadness; every night she was further away from love. And so she was further away from making the most of the moment as a cornerstone of transformation. Sometimes she thought of revenge, sometimes of suicide. One day, a few months later, when she was evicted for non-payment from the boarding house where she lived, she found the card of the boy with whom she had shared a cabin on the trip to Zurich at the bottom of a bag. Out of pity, the owner of the boarding house allowed her one last phone call.”
“It was the first morning of her life, though only later would she understand that. The boy helped her and took her to a place where, at the time, they gathered people who were lost from themselves.” Anne looked at the walls of the monastery and gave a beautiful smile.
“He asked her what her gift was. Monique said she had no idea what it meant. She confessed that she had not paid much attention in their conversation on the train. The boy explained again that it was some skill she loved to practice, something that brought her the feeling that she had come to the world to accomplish. The gift is the tool, the exercise of the dream is the making of the work: life. He added that the gift is manifested through a craft, art or through charity.”
“On an impulse, she said that she had learned to embroider with her mother when she was very small. In fact, this was the only good memory she had of her childhood and she missed it. But, she confessed, she had never practiced again. The young man provided Monique with fabric, needles and thread. She insisted that she could not remember the stitching points of embroidery. The young man begged her not to give up before she started. She should give it a try, at least.”
“At the beginning Monique encountered many difficulties, but gradually she remembered the techniques taught by her mother. Some others came to her by intuition, like a born talent that blossoms as we take care of it. That’s how gifts are. Many times she pierced her fingers with the point of the needle. She smiled and went on. At first the embroidery was not very well done, but one could see that the girl was a natural. Little by little she improved until she was able to weave beautiful and enormous panels. There were always angels embroidered on them; they were like a signature. As time went by, when people saw her work, they identified her by the angels embroidered. She sold them at fairs, then in shops, until she was invited to exhibit the works in a small art gallery in Barcelona. One day she exhibited her work at the Prado Museum in Madrid. She had established herself as an artist. However, nothing made her happier than to continue embroidering sweaters for children in orphanages. She insisted that they were made in bright colours, different from the dark ones she used to wear as a child. Angels were also embroidered on them. With each child that she wore in winter, she felt that her soul was also warmed. This consecrated her even more than the museum exhibition. To consecrate is to be in conjunction with the sacred. Sacred is everything that makes a person better. Thus, Monique lived a deep experience through the transformation, overcoming and pleniudes achieved.”
Stunned, I whispered that I knew that artist. Monique was Anne. She smiled sweetly at me. “I changed my name when I decided to be reborn. Don’t think I am ashamed of Monique. On the contrary, I am grateful to her. Without Monique Anne would not exist.”
The Elder said, “Monique was the caterpillar; Anne, the butterfly. Facing the darkness and difficulty of the cocoon with dignity developed and strengthened her wings. Freedom is a flight allowed only when we stop living out of passion to live out of love. This will always be a deep experience.”
Before I could ask, Anne clarified, “Passion is involvement; it brings contrariness, discomfort, anxiety and impatience. Love is commitment; it teaches the serenity, infinitude and hidden beauty of truth. Passion is when I want for myself the good things that exist in the world; love makes me want for the world the good things that dwell in me. Passion brings the eagerness of the harvest; love is about the joy of sowing”.
“Love is everything I do that makes me a better person. Through love I become sacred.”
She held the Elder’s hands over the table and spoke, “I have told you this many times, but I am happy to remember. Thank you for taking that call!”.
In response, the monk just smiled at Anne.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.