The world is not a good place to live. I was sure of that while I watched the beautiful mountains from a comfortable armchair on the veranda of the monastery. Tired of so many conflicts, injustice and cruelty, I had lost hope of living in a better world. In my personal life I had also been through some feuds and disappointments, in the family, among friends and at work. Therefore, I was happy to go away for a period of retreat at the Order, for studies and reflection. The monastery was a good safe house. I had arrived on the previous evening, and had not yet met the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the brotherhood. He had returned a bit earlier, after a lecture tour in neighboring cities, and had retired to his room, to rest. On the following day, I woke up, stopped by the library to pick up a book, grabbed a cup of coffee at the refectory and went to the veranda. It didn’t take long for the Old Man to come meet me. His white beard carefully trimmed, the slow and yet steady steps, his tanned face from the sun of the mountains, he was the image of happiness and pleasant disposition, despite his advanced age. An aura of wellbeing and peace enveloped him and infected everyone around. It was not a calm of laziness, but a rejuvenating tranquility. Although he appreciated rest, he was always engaged in a number of activities and studies and would not go without his daily yoga practice when he woke up. He bore the power of lightness and the strength of movement. He offered me a sincere smile and a tight hug. Seated in the armchair next to mine, he told me about the cycle of lectures in which he had just participated and how happy he was with that. He said he wanted to talk to me about his new projects, but, before, he asked me how I was doing. Because words tend to reflect what we carry in our soul, I spilled out all my frustrations and the sorrows of the world. I concluded by saying that now I would close myself even further in my life circle, more and more oblivious to the injustices of humankind. Next, I said I was looking forward to that period of studies and the spiritual development it would bring me. The Old Man listened carefully and patiently, without interrupting me. At the end, he said: “The new learning cycle will be different than the prior ones. I think you will profit from it, but I question if you will like it.”
Curious, I asked what author we were going to study. There were many I liked, and others I wanted to read for the first time. Yogananda, Lao-Tse, Blavatsky, Kardec, Teresa of Ávila were some of an extensive list. He was enigmatic in his answer: “They are all wonderful and provide important teachings. This time, we will study a favorite of mine.” He paused, and I was surprised with his proposition: “There is a small group of refugees recently arrived from Africa. They have been placed in a city close by. We will spend some days with them.” What did he mean by that? I had come from another continent seeking quietness and study time. Quite honestly, it was not in my plans to trade the comfort of the monastery for the precariousness of a refugee camp. The Old Man nodded, as if saying he understood me, and continued: “You have your reasons, and you are free to choose.” I asked him if all the monks, as the members of the Order are called, would also go. H shook his head and explained: “No. Only you and I will go. The others will stay for lectures, readings, discussions and meditation.” And he added: “I will go early tomorrow morning, soon after breakfast. Be ready, in case you want to join me. Otherwise, you can stay with the others, no problem.”
Differently from what I could have imagined, there was no hint of disappointment or resentment in the voice of the Old Man, only kindness and sympathy. It was precisely that which touched me to the point of making me uncomfortable. I had decided that I would stay at the monastery. I longed for my days there. The fantastic experience of studying I had there occurred only once a year; human misery was available at any time. No, I would not join the Old Man.
On that day, I attended a lecture that was followed by a lively discussion. I don’t recall what was the lecture about nor the discussion that ensued. I could think only about the ludicrous invitation the good monk had made me. I spent a sleepless night. On the following day, when the Old Man was getting in the car that would take him to camp, I arrived in a rush carrying my backpack, got in the car through the other door and sat next to him on the back seat. Without looking at me, he arched his lips in a discreet smile.
The trip took almost 6 hours. A refugee camp is the perfect representation of the outskirts of a city with the aggravating circumstance that those people have no plans for the following day, only dreams. It was precisely a personal dream that had propelled the Old Man. His strength and power; his discourse and action; his hope and faith. The good monk’s dream was as high-spirited as a playful boy. The first impression I had was that the camp was like an orphanage, the difference being that, in addition to children, also adults were orphaned. Orphaned of life. More than their bodies, it was their souls that needed to be rescued. I understood immediately that one does not die from the finitude of the body, but from the abandonment of the soul.
However, before I could think of any lecture on spiritual matters to inspire those people, it was necessary to treat wounds, provide them with clothes, give them food, create conditions for the children to study and establish work goals and targets for the adults. In short, provide them with the minimal conditions of existence. There was so much to do I felt like quitting. I was convinced the best thing to do was to turn around, get back to the car and go back to the monastery. I even grabbed my backpack to leave. Then I saw the Old Man embracing three children. One of them had an infected wound on the arm which stained the monk’s shirt with blood and pus. I noticed he did not care about that. On the contrary, his eyes radiated an indescribable light. He exuded love in the highest possible vibration; it was charity, beneficence, compassion, love in its noblest sense: love the other as you love yourself. I had listened to this sentence quite often. That was the first time that I saw it.
No, no and no. That was really elevated, but not for me. Government officials and congressmen were elected to solve that. Moreover, I did my part through financial donations I made to NGOs that tackled similar problems. I did not want that life; that was not my world. When I was about to leave, I couldn’t help looking at the Old Man once again. Much to my surprise, he also looked at me. In his eyes there was no disappointment, only mercy. We faced each other for seconds that seemed an eternity in my heart. Then, he articulated very slowly with his lips, so that I could understand: “You are the light of the world!”
That was a sentence from the Sermon of the Mount, a text I had studied because it was the philosophical mainstay of the Order. A thousand thoughts crossed my mind. How would I feel if I went back to the monastery and resumed my studies if they were of no use to me? How could I evolve without being involved with the world? How could I move forward if I did not have the courage to reinvent myself? Was I willing to live my existence to the fullest, or to spend it as if I were on vacation? If I am on this planet with all its trials and tribulations, it is because of my energetic affinity with it; I was not as good as I thought I was. To be entitled to a better world, I had the obligation to be a better person.
There was no way out; it was impossible to avoid looking in the mirror. I had crossed the point of no return. I put my backpack aside, approached a doctor, who was generously donating his time and expertise there during his vacation from the hospital where he worked and offered to be his assistant. He smiled at me and asked me to pass him some gauze and cotton. An amount of energy I could not measure pulsated in my gut, and the feeling of repulsion I had shifted into a tremendous yearning to do whatever had to be done. At that moment, I started to understand a little more about love.
It had been an intense day, and that was only the first day of the entire week I was going to spend there. In the evening, after a light meal and a makeshift shower, I found the Old Man seated alone and quiet on a wood bench outdoors. I sat next to him and said only thank you. He smiled, and we remained silent for a while. I broke the silence and said we needed to arrange a number of things so that those people could leave the edge of life and be reintegrated into the world. The monk nodded in agreement and added: “Yes, they need material conditions to reach a basic standard of living, but they also need affection. They cannot stop believing in love, its strength and power of transformation. Neither can we. We do not always have enough money to provide for the needs of others, but when we refuse to give affection and attention, we disclose the entire misery we live in.”
I told him that when I was helping the doctor, I felt light because I noticed how easy it was to solve my personal problems; I had realized how laughable my passions were. I added that life could be different and the world, a good place. The Old Man smiled and said: “We are the light of the world. If the inside of me is dark, I will find a gloomy world to live in. On the other hand, if there is light in me, I will live in a clear and colorful world, despite all the hardships and problems typical of life. Moreover, if there is light in me, I am also capable of illuminating the life of whoever is around me. The higher I vibrate my light, the farther it will be able to reach. Darkness will only persist while I refuse to light my own light. When I illuminate myself, I illuminate the world.”
I remarked that now I agreed that that cycle of studies was promising major advancements. The Old Man explained his reasons: “Looking at pictures of a place is quite different than living in that place; hearing about a person is not the same as living or having a relationship with that person. The same goes for the virtues, we need to try each one of them to actually fully appreciate them. Only then can we incorporate them to our way of being and living.” He paused and then continued: “Mercy is one of the most beautiful and powerful virtues, because of its depth. It begins with the Latin origin of the word. In languages derived from the Latin, the translation of mercy is misericordiain Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and miséricordein French. It is the conjunction of two words, miserere, compassion, and cordia, heart. It means the compassionate heart, or the use of the heart to heal the suffering of others.” He looked at me in the eyes and concluded: “Mercy is one of the highest forms of love. In mercy, the sacred is manifested through you.”
The Old Man excused himself and stood up. It was time to sleep. I remained there, seated for some more time, thinking of all the lessons I had on that day. I recalled that before we came, he said we were going to study his favorite author. I was curious to know who he meant. This is when I realized we had spoken about the light of the world and the importance of the virtue of mercy, the fifth beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount. I smiled to myself. I wasn’t difficult to find out his name. It was precisely he who did not write a single line, but experienced love in accordance with his word.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.