In the middle of the afternoon, after searching most of the monastery, I could find the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, in the dining hall. He was entertaining himself with a piece of oatcake and a mug of coffee while chatting with the cook. Both were good-humoured men and full of interesting stories to tell. When he saw me, he beckoned me to sit with them. Raimundo, a Brazilian from Ceará, had travelled the world aboard a merchant ship until he settled down, some time ago, in the kitchen of the monastery, located in the Pyrenees mountains. He was much loved by all in the Order, both for his friendliness and his culinary skills. Raimundo was telling a story about an adventure he had lived in Vietnam. Off duty when the ship docked, he looked for a church because he felt a great discomfort in his soul, which he could not identify the reason for. Not knowing the port city, he wandered the streets until he came across a Buddhist temple. The gates were open, so he entered. He climbed the staircase and found a large hall. It was empty. The scent of incense and the soft music that blended with the sound of silence made the place welcoming. He sat down and prayed. As he came from a family with no religious habits, he had never learned how to pray. So, he prayed in his own way, led by the purity of his heart. As he felt an inexplicable desire to talk beyond the things of the world, he lost himself in the hours. When he had finished, a Buddhist monk who was watching approached him. He declared himself delighted with Raimundo’s clear aura. He said that the purity of his prayer had illuminated the temple and thanked him for this. The cook confessed that he was feeling much better than when he had entered. He reached into his pocket, took out some money and gave it to the monk. He said that it should be used to maintain the temple, for he thought it important that the place be maintained so that other people could benefit from it, just as had happened to him. The Buddhist, who had asked for nothing, arched his lips in a smile and nodded his head in thanks. Raimundo added that that money was also with the intention of obtaining some merit from the High, since he understood almost nothing about these matters. At that moment, without losing his serenity, the Buddhist monk returned the money. He said he could not accept it; that Raimundo should not be angry or take it badly. But this was not a barter market; this was a temple. A place of connection with the sacred that dwells in all of us. He explained that charity was a beautiful virtue, provided it was free of any interest, whether material or spiritual. He argued that he was returning the money for the good of Raimundo himself, since charity linked to any reward becomes an obstacle to the cosmic journey of the benefactor.
I interrupted to say that the Buddhist monk had been inelegant and strict. The cook said that, although he had been disoriented, that fact had helped him to understand a lot about charity, one of the aspects of mercy; forgiveness is the other. He said that from that fact he could begin to understand how to relate to God, the Universe, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Infinite, the Great Mystery or any other name used in the various mystical traditions.
I looked at the Elder seeking his opinion. He smiled and explained, “Mercy is a little understood virtue in its variants. Like forgiveness, charity has several steps. Understanding them is paramount to knowing mercy in all its extent.”
“Many practice charity as spiritual compensation for their evil deeds; in those cases, it is completely empty. In truth, they are seeking forgiveness for any mistakes. That’s another mistake. As it is about forgiveness, there is nothing to buy or to sell. Metaphysically the idea of bargaining forgiveness is simply absurd.”
“Others practice charity as an attempt to, in return, obtain material favours. A ridiculous bargain. Something like, I help those in need and in return, God helps me. Many act this way as if they were in front of a counter of favours and interests. The disappointment will be enormous.”
“There are the lost ones. They are those who trade charity on the stock futures market. They promise to help an orphanage if they hit the lottery or become millionaires in their business. In other words, they imagine God as a naïve boy. They ask a lot and, if they are granted, they will contribute a part. Only a part. Only fools imagine that something like that can become an act of charity. They will never be taken seriously.”
“There are the shady ones. They do charity out of pride or vanity. Either to feel greater than others, or to be admired in society. They always find a way to show their good deeds, often using false humility. Alms that in no way will be characterized as charity by its despicable motivation. A lowly act will never be considered a virtue”.
“Let us not forget the fearful. They attend to the needy for fear of being punished by Heaven. They don’t do it for love, but because they fear the loss of their material possessions due to supposed divine punishment. They will be ignored. Forget the idea of punishment. There is no virtue or evolution through fear. God wants us to be courageous and aware of the love that exists in each of our choices.”
“Incautious, all of them, they practice charity in the expectation of deceiving themselves or the good spirits in relation to the true feelings that animate their hearts. They believe that the shell will prevent the lump from revealing itself. They are mistaken in thinking that in the Highlands anyone is deluded by appearance without paying attention to the essence.”
The Elder paused to sip his coffee. I took the opportunity to say that, although it never occurred to me to propose some kind of bargain through charity, every time I practiced it was with the intention of feeling better. The Elder looked at me, smiled and praised, “A beautiful and noble attitude!” My ego vibrated. But only for a short time, for then he pondered: “If it had not been for this reason, to feel better, would you have done the charity?” Even without understanding the depth of the question, I confessed that I would not.
The good monk reasoned, “Doing good to feel better, while it has undeniable value, still leaves us short of the ultimate and broadest sense of charity. When we do this, we incur two dangers. One of them is, unconsciously, in the capacity of benefactor, to feel in a stage above the beneficiary for the mere fact of helping him, as if the material power meant spiritual superiority. The stories of ragged angels begging to reveal the hearts of men are well known. The act of helping another person so we can feel better, in deep analysis, would represent only a good exercise for an ego still misaligned with the soul in search of the piece it lacks. It seeks outside that which slumbers within.”
“It is common to use helping someone to complete something we lack within us. I give love to receive love. Affective emptiness and emotional disorder end up making the roles to be inverted. When you use charity for your own satisfaction, even if there is assistance, there is no benevolence. The benefactor, in truth, is the beneficiary of the charity practiced by you. Thus, the roles are inverted.”
“Another danger occurs on occasions where the benefactor is devoid of the best understanding about charity. These are situations where some disappointments occur. It is common for the beneficiary not to be grateful for the help received. On the contrary, he feels even more miserable for not being able to meet his own needs, for living in dependence. He cannot understand the gesture of love; the help received dilates the discomfort for the existing differences; he revolts in front of the inequalities and denies the lesson of love received. The individual who does not do charity out of love, lost in incomprehension, will frustrate himself at that moment. There are cases in which the benefactor becomes discouraged before the difficulties created by the shadows, in order to create a smokescreen that makes seeing the light a hard task.”
“Doing something for the joy of another person should be a gesture made out of love. Doing out of love is like planting flowers to make the road of unknown walkers more beautiful and pleasant. Without knowing anything about the sower.”
“Let the joy for the joy of another person always be a contentment, never a dependence. Remember that joy is at the core of being. Sharing what we have best makes us sacred. Sacred with the other; con-secrated. However, do not forget that the seed needs fertile soil to germinate. We won’t always find it; that’s not reason for giving up or regret it. Love lies in giving. Be committed to sharing; receiving is an effect that should not be expected. This is not typical of love. Love expects nothing, never demands and never regrets.”
“Another common misconception is to imagine that charity is only possible through financial contributions. This is a big mistake. Emotional charity has immeasurably higher value than material aid. Undoubtedly, the world needs better income distribution for a more humane coexistence. However, humanity needs hugs and understanding more than it needs money. This is the wonder of the mercy that makes it accessible to all. No one is so poor that they cannot spare a little compassion, patience and affection for someone who is helpless. Often in one’s own home. Yes, affective charity begins in the family. Before saving the world, the individual must put out the fire that burns in his own home.
“History tells us that the people who changed the destiny of the world, those who spiritually sustain the planet, mostly never had more than a few coins in their pockets.”
I interrupted to say that charity was very complex. The Elder agreed, in part, “Complex for its simplicity.” Then the monk reminded me of an important detail: “In the sermon given on the mountain the Master oriented us that the left hand must not know what the right hand is doing. This lesson carries in itself several teachings.”
“He was saying, on the surface, that we should not propagandise any aid we give. This would be like promoting a dance party for the shadows of pride and vanity. Another reason is for the recipient, when possible, not to know who the benefactor was. Thus, there will be no debts of any kind, no obligations of gratitude and no feeling of inequality between those involved. Remember that charity, above all, is an act of love. Love is only complete in its unconditionality, without the need for judgements, recognition or consideration. Otherwise, it’s a love that is still immature; or even, it’s not love.”
He took another sip of coffee and continued, “In depth, when the Master says that ‘the left hand must not know what the right hand is doing’ he warns the benefactor himself not to exalt the deed even for himself. After all, charity cannot become a party for the ego to dance, even if alone, far from public view. One must have humility and compassion. Charity is a natural gesture of love practiced by a pure soul and devoid of any interest, except the good of others. One does charity because one has love in one’s heart. And love exists to lay the foundation of the pillars of one’s temple, one’s conscience. Charity should be like seeds thrown to the wind to germinate in unknown lands. People we may never meet, places we may never return to. Any other purpose will be lost through inadequacy. The walker does good and walks. He does not look back.”
“The German physicist Albert Einstein said that the world of facts does not always lead to the world of values. In other words, doing good, by itself, does not make a man a good one. The existence of the fruit is not enough to know the tree; it is necessary to taste it, because not all fruits with a beautiful appearance are sweet. For this it is necessary to go deeper into its essence. There is the taste and the honey. One does good for many reasons, not all of them virtuous. The good man does good without any effort or interest. He is aware that doing good has no merit in itself; doing good does not tire him; it does not cause boredom. It is an indispensable exercise for a being who overflows with love. It signifies a soul that has already awakened within itself the wisdom about the usefulness of love.”
The Elder was right. Charity is an act of pure love. Pure of subterfuge, of hidden motivations and unmentionable intentions. One must live love within oneself in order to practice charity in the world. When I thought the subject was finished, I begin to get up to find a corner where I could reflect on those words, and Raimundo commented that it was more profound to understand and practice another aspect of mercy, which is forgiveness. The Elder agreed: “Forgiveness is the spiritual charity.”
I sat back in my chair and filled my mug with coffee. I said that forgiveness was not a difficult virtue to practice. Raimundo had a naughty exchange of glances with the Elder and asked me if I had forgiven all the people who had ever hurt me. I answered yes. I no longer wished them ill or harboured any resentment. With some I still did not relate, because the mistake had been theirs. Therefore, it was up to them, after repenting, to come to me. I added that I would receive them willingly. The two of them looked at each other again in complicity of ideas. I had fallen into a very common trap, the illusion of forgiveness.
The Elder explained: “Just like charity, forgiveness has a few steps of understanding. Some softer, others more severe, all griefs are spiritual prisons. The cruellest one gives rise to the desire for vengeance as a deception to overcome the evil suffered. It is the dungeon created by the apex of hatred in unresolved emotional situations. It is worth pointing out that the resolution of forgiveness is not in the other, but in oneself. No matter what has happened, nothing else needs to happen for forgiveness to spring up. Yes, forgiveness can be born from a spontaneous and unilateral act.”
He put another piece of cake on his plate and continued: “Forgiveness is wise. For if I depend on the good will of the other for the resolution of the conflict, I give him the power over my life. The healing of resentment, which causes so much pain, possible only through forgiveness, would be put on hold indefinitely until the alleged detractor attains the consciousness to review mistakes, apologize and repair the wrong actions. This could take millennia and would leave me imprisoned in the cell of grief, crippled in spirit by such emotional dependency.”
“If he apologises to me, I forgive him, they justify. These people understand nothing about forgiveness. In order to be true, forgiveness requires no condition. Forgiveness is a gesture of love. For the wise forgiveness is a runway to unimaginable flights.”
“And what’s even worse: much of the anger one feels may not have arisen because of another’s mistake. The mere fact that someone does not wish the same thing as me can become a wound when I am out of balance. The world has the right to think and choose differently from what I think and choose; no one is bound to agree with me or heed my pleas. But I tend to forget this. The non-acceptance of the freedom of others is the most common cause of the decrease of one’s own freedom. The lack of understanding of other people’s choices, even legitimate ones, are the source of many resentments. Our grudges are the bars of a cell closed by a primitive, savage and bestialised ego.”
“The understanding and practice of forgiveness as an act of unconditional love is the permission granted to oneself to be free, worthy, happy and live in peace. We forgive in order to be full.”
“Forgiveness is not just about not wanting the other person’s harm, it is about wanting everyone involved to be enveloped in light. Including you. In the light evil does not survive; love reigns there.”
“Otherwise, if we depend on any attitude of another person for forgiveness to be complete, we would park in the neutrality of existence. We would remain stagnant. Life demands movement and virtue. Love leads us towards the positive pole of the universe. Forgiveness is the boat that allows us to cross from one shore to the other. Forgiveness is one of the most sacred ways of loving.”
“Forgiveness is the offering of the other side of our face, the one that the shadows still do not know. The face of light.”
“Forgive yourself and ask for forgiveness whenever necessary; try, if possible, to repair the mistake made. From then on, the case is closed; you should move on.” I questioned whether it was so simple. The Elder answered: “Yes, in truth, although deep, it is quite simple. If the other does not accept forgiveness, whether asked or offered, it will be his internal affair in which no further attitude or interference is appropriate. You cannot interfere in the choices of others, however do not allow them to imprison you.”
Raimundo interrupted to say that all egos who are unrepentant about forgiveness should seek a therapist for treatment. The good monk laughed at the cook’s incisive way of expressing himself, but agreed with him. I disagreed. I insisted that the issue was not that simple. The Elder maintained his position: “Yes, it is simple. Sophistically simple. However, just be aware not to use the name of forgiveness in vain. Get rid of the guilt that paralyses; accept the commitment to transformation. Take sincere responsibility to yourself to do differently and better next time. Value the meaning and intention of the gesture so as not to distort such a beautiful attitude. Take advantage of the fact to grow. Do not ask for forgiveness in the practice of an act empty of virtues, with words that do not have the proper charge of commitment. Move through good feelings and noble ideas. Nor does one forgive without such principles, for that would be self-deceit. Forgiveness to be true needs to bring in itself several virtues that build it. Love, humility, simplicity, compassion, generosity, softness, sincerity, honesty and courage, lots of courage. Only the strong forgive and ask for forgiveness.”
We were silent for a while. Raimundo noticed my distant thoughts and said that few realize the greatness of living mercy in its full amplitude. I agreed. The Elder deepened the conversation: “Not without a reason, mercy is the fifth Beatitude. Not without reason it is the Fifth Gate of the Way. For this it is necessary to have gone beyond the four previous portals, which is only possible when one has many other virtues already sedimented in the soul. Mercy is one of the most sublime ways of loving. It is also one of the most beautiful words because of its construction, which in fact translates all the light contained in this virtue. Mercy is the junction of the antepositive ‘miser’ with the Latin term ‘cordis’, which means misfortune and heart, respectively. In other words, mercy is the sacred act of offering love as a balm to someone’s suffering. It also serves in relation to oneself. To love oneself as a healing therapy is a primordial act for loving the world as an indispensable method of expanding one’s being.”
The Elder emptied his coffee mug and finished, “Paul, the apostle of the people, was right when he wrote in his most famous letter that ‘without love I am nothing’. Love is the word that sums up all evolution.”
Raimundo excused himself, as he had dinner to prepare. Then the Elder also stood up. He was going to read in the monastery library. I watched the good monk walk away with his slow but firm steps.
Translated by: Cazmilian Zórdic