Superficial relationships

It was a day like any other at the monastery. No, it wasn’t. One day is never the same as another. If it is, there’s something wrong. It means we’ve lost the ability to see beyond the surface of events or that we’re running away from something. Often from ourselves. With due correction, let’s start this story again. The days went by with apparent normality at the monastery. Why seemingly? Because the inner impulses that drive an individual don’t always reveal themselves easily to unperceptive or insensitive eyes. The other person matters; all lives matter. However, this can be a morally perfect speech, worthy of admiration and applause, in which the individual places himself beyond criticism.  But by refraining from any action corresponding to the speech, it will remain empty. On the other hand, even in the silence of words there can be a loving attitude, practised in secrecy, but dignified in the greatness of action. Ethics builds the tracks of evolution; love will always be the indispensable locomotive to take us to our destination.

Let’s start again. It was a typical day at the monastery. There was tranquillity and movement. The monks were engaged in their studies, reflective practices and lectures. This last activity was very interesting and lively, although it sometimes led to heated debates. From time to time, they turned into arguments. Irritation is one of the necessary preconditions for abominable arguments. Since it’s unnecessary, when it happens, it means that the train has derailed. I need to understand the words that had the power to knock me off the rails so that a collision doesn’t happen again. Yes, when I get angry it means that there has been a disaster inside me. There will be damage. Some of it very serious; you must know how to avoid it.

But that wasn’t the case that day, when there was order, discipline, respect and tranquillity. Everyone was helpful and interested in learning and collaborating. The various courses were held in the monastery’s smaller rooms. The great hall was reserved for lectures, when the various classes would meet. Debate sessions on a pre-selected subject were also held there, after the periods set aside for reflection. Studying, thinking, talking and thinking again is a simple and necessary exercise. We always have something to add. When a new idea comes along to dismantle another that we believed to be definitive, we remodel our intrinsic workshop. We’ll discover different methods to fix some part of the track that insisted on coming loose; this will prevent the train from derailing again on the same curve. It will also be possible to change a part that modifies the power of the locomotive’s engine, enabling it to travel up the mountain to a place that was previously unreachable.

Klaus was a monk held in high esteem by everyone at the monastery. Polite and helpful, he always enquired about family and the work of the other monks when we returned for a new period of study. He had a soft speech and firm look. I never doubted the peace and wisdom that dwelled in that man. This time was no different. When he met me, he wanted to know about my daughters and wife; then he asked me about my work. I was pleased with his interest in matters that were of the utmost importance to me. My life mattered to him. Before I could reciprocate his interest, in a few brief words he began to make some comments about the economic crisis that was shaking the world. We were in the early years of the 21st century. The teachings brought about by the global financial crisis had been the subject set for reflection and subsequent debate during that period of study at the monastery. What intrinsic changes would the serious events in the world allow me to make? An understanding that needs to be built up so that the difficulties experienced are not wasted. Shortly afterwards, he asked to be excused, as the class for the course he was enrolled in would be starting soon. I left with the distinct feeling that Klaus was a good example of balance and virtue. Perhaps one of the most prepared monks in the Order.

I noticed that the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery, was watching us as he trimmed the thorns from the rose bushes in the inner garden. When our gazes met, with a simple gesture, he asked me to come closer. Then he warned: “Pay attention to Klaus. He needs help”. I immediately objected. Klaus was a living centre of serene strength and unshakeable balance. The Elder reminded me: “A firm gaze doesn’t always mean security; quiet speech doesn’t always mean harmony; politeness doesn’t always mean genuine politeness or genuine interest. To the untrained eye, a person’s behaviour will not always reveal the true characteristics of their personality. Nor will the conflicts that torment their heart. To read any book accurately, you have to look for the words that were never written. Without them, understanding the story will be incomplete. So it is with all of us”.

I insisted that this perspective was wrong. The Elder offered me some indications that supported his arguments: “Year after year, with each cycle of studies, Klaus’ shyness becomes more pronounced. Shyness can be just a personality trait, but it can also mean hiding. People who are afraid hide”. I pointed out that Klaus got on well with all the monks and was liked and admired by everyone. The good sage maintained the coherence of his fundamentals: “Notice that he treats everyone well, but doesn’t relate deeply to anyone. This prevents external conflicts. So everyone in the monastery thinks highly of him. However, these are superficial relationships which, as such, keep love in the shallows.”

He frowned and showed concern: “Love requires depth. It’s not enough to show interest, there must be commitment. An existence based on fleeting relationships will leave a huge chasm as a legacy. What’s worse, at some point, if it’s not repaired, this abyss will grow until it swallows the individual.”

The Elder took the opportunity to add a small appendix to his thesis: “Although conflicts are never desirable, when they are well utilised, they serve to reveal who we are not yet, providing us with the raw material for the indispensable transformations. As it is a painful path, it should be avoided. We can achieve the same results through study, reflection, debate and conversation, provided they are carried out with serenity, discipline and respect. Conflicts, on the other hand, instead of bringing about transformations, leave terrible existential knots, causes of misunderstanding and suffering. Some of them very serious.” He made a point of emphasising: “There will always be gentler ways of reaching the point of mutation without the wear and tear of interpersonal disagreements. That’s why study, reading, reflection, conversations, prayer and meditation. Nobody needs suffering to awaken dormant love or find lost wisdom. However, when we deny ourselves lightness, life takes us to a precise adjustment, inflicting its full weight on our backs, as if it needed to tear away the crust that prevents light from breaking through and love from flourishing. Let’s make a habit of going through our luggage to discern what remains from what no longer serves us on the journey. It’s an important habit to keep it light”. He shrugged and reminded us: “Everyone is their own baggage”.

He then made Klaus the subject of the conversation again: “You have to understand why he refuses to relate deeply to other people. There’s something he’s afraid to reveal to the world, because he doesn’t want to face this shadow in himself. So he runs away from people, he’s afraid that his innermost truths will come out of the depths of his soul to the surface of his immature ego, even though he appears to have a high degree of maturity. Let’s also consider the shame we feel when some unconfessed truth is exposed to the critical eyes of the world.” He cut off the dry branch of a rose bush and said: “It’s the King’s New Clothes Syndrome. Just like in the fairy tale, we’re terrified that someone will realise the truth we’ve been hiding and reveal to the crowd that the king is naked”.

I insisted it didn’t make aby sense. Every year Klaus returned to the monastery and socialised with dozens of monks. A socialising, I observed, that he did with rare mastery. The Elder nodded and observed: “He misses people at the same time as he fears being discovered by them. Discovered in the sense of tearing off the blanket that hides the nakedness of his soul from the world and protects him from the shame of a truth he can neither handle nor admit.”

I argued that Klaus set limits to his relationships. Boundaries are important delimiters in all relationships because of the abuse they prevent. They are indispensable tools for respect. The Elder nodded again and said, “You’re right”. Then he added: “However, you have to understand the balance in setting the boundaries of relationships. When they are too close, they allow undue intrusions; when they are too far, they prevent the important existential sharing that teaches, enriches and makes us evolve. An existence marked by superficial relationships can mean a life poor in opportunities and enchantment. These days will lack love. This is when the dangerous abyss sets in; when it becomes bigger than the individual, it will devour them.” I wanted to know the reason for this last statement. The Elder explained: “Love blossoms in the heart to bear fruit in relationships. Without the intensity of living together, the feeling grows cold and love dies for lack of meaning. Unpractised love is like fruit that rots without fulfilling its destiny of feeding hearts.”

I confessed to the Elder that I often didn’t find within myself the love I needed to offer in various situations. I admitted that I too remained superficial, not with everyone, but in some relationships where I knew I could offer more. I admitted that I considered myself poor in love. The good monk offered me an unforgettable lesson: “At the beginning of time, in order not to die of hunger, humanity understood that it could not depend solely on the chance of finding fruit and game at random, nor on the regularity of the seasons and rainfall. The imponderable exists to move us forward. So it realised that it needed to make its own food. This idea gave rise to bread. For it to reach the table, you have to prepare the soil, sow the wheat, care for and maintain the crop, harvest it, thresh the grain, make the dough and then bake it. Only at the end of this process will there be bread to feed and satisfy hunger. Bread requires will and movement’’.

He waited for me to speak. As I didn’t say a word, he continued: “It’s no different with love. Even though at times it seems to come about by chance, when we no longer expect it, we can’t just wait for love to find us. Love can’t be picked up off the ground or hunted down. There is a need to create love. Relationships, all of them, are like wheat seeds. You must endeavour to carry out the same process as bread. Sowing, caring for, maintaining, harvesting and transforming. Like bread, love requires will and movement. Superficial relationships are wasted wheat seeds; it is bread that hasn’t happened. It’s an invitation to existential hunger. Love is the bread of the soul”. 

The conversation ended there. I was free to follow the Elder’s suggestion about Klaus or stick to my opinion. As convinced as I was about my outlook, I couldn’t help observing the polite and gentle Klaus. As the days went by, I noticed that he was always around the study groups, sitting at the dining table with the other monks and taking part in the collective activities. In his spare time, when there was time and space for more intimate socialising, to strengthen relationships and deepen knowledge in the exchange of personal experiences, moments in which passages open through existential walls, he shied away. The reason for this behaviour was perhaps because, in these moments, small edges could cause big rips. Shields are destroyed; there is the risk of exposing an uncomfortable truth that we wish didn’t exist. However, if it does exist, there is a greater reason; there is a step available for us to climb. To do so, we have to leave behind the weight of shame. Shame is the consequence of a lack of humility, simplicity and compassion. In this case, compassion for oneself. You must love yourself with gentleness, just as you have to be firm and sincere in order to become a different and better person every day. We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all been weak, we’ve been led astray by various temptations and we’ve made many errors. Without exception. That’s why forgiveness exists. To make regeneration possible; to reinvent ourselves and rebuild us from our own ruins. This is the story of all the spirits of Light; this is how my story and yours will be, along their own lines. Forgiveness begins as a self-conquest and then becomes a merit and is completed as a right. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespassed against us; a powerful commitment contained in the most famous prayer on the planet.

Returning to Klaus, I noticed that on the occasions when there could be depth and intensity, he withdrew into the seclusion of the library. Until then, I thought it was his interest in seeking knowledge as an instrument of transformation. But you must learn to read the words that aren’t written down.

Yet the Elder’s words, no matter how much I scared them away, kept ringing in my ears. Until I ran into Klaus in the canteen. We were alone. I had gone to get a mug of coffee just as he was filling a cup of tea to take to the library. He gave me a kind smile and started talking about my family. I decided to take a chance. I told him I needed his help. I asked if we could sit down and talk for a while. His discomfort was clear, but he quickly corrected it with his usual politeness. We sat down. I told him that I was facing some difficulties in my relationship with my daughters. As he had children of a similar age, I asked him what kind of problems occurred in his home. I added that the perfect family was not one that had no problems, but one that sought solutions with balance and wisdom. His discomfort deepened. He said he couldn’t remember any specific situation. I insisted. I asked him to make a little effort to recall a moment that could serve as a guide. After all, all families face difficulties of some kind. It’s worth emphasising that this is important. Problems teach us about equations and make us find previously unthinkable answers. Klaus skilfully diverted the subject. I didn’t give up and returned to the point. While containing his irritation, he said that we were there to talk about my daughters, not his sons. I reminded him that it was his custom to always ask about the monks’ families when he met them. Everyone always interpreted the gesture as genuine interest. I pondered that I didn’t understand why he was so uncomfortable with the inversion of the equation. Klaus affirmed that I was mistaken. Then, before I could speak, he asked to be excused. He said he needed to prepare for the debates and left for the silence of the library. At that moment, I realised that, like the other monks, I knew nothing about Klaus, although I had known him for several years.

Of course, nobody is obliged to talk about subjects they don’t want to. However, there’s no reason to show interest in the same issues as the other person without wanting to talk about yourself. There will be no depth without both immersing themselves in their own essences, so that they serve as a mutual mirror and the light of one serves to illuminate the other. When equal sharing of flow is not allowed, an imbalance becomes evident. There is an intrinsic disaster that is just waiting to be tragically revealed to the world. Shyness, like superficial relationships, can characterise the attempt to postpone this announcement indefinitely. Pride and vanity make us fear shame. Why are we ashamed of our own truth? As long as it happens, we postpone the inevitable encounter, discovery and conquest that everyone needs with themselves. Shame reveals immaturity in dealing with one’s own mistakes; therefore, the inability to forgive. 

Over the next few days, although he kept his usual politeness, Klaus avoided me. I didn’t want to play the part of the detective chasing the fugitive. He had the right to deal with his problems in his own way and time; he had the right not to want to talk. Besides, I’m not authorised to enter anyone’s sacred space without permission. Aware of this, I would never have insisted on continuing that conversation which, although it didn’t allow me to know anything beyond Klaus’ appearances, was enough to understand the Elder’s concern to help him. There was a silent cry for help. The Elder’s weakened body moved slowly, but his wisdom allowed his soul incredible long-range flights.

That cycle of studies had come to a fruitful and enjoyable close. I noticed that when he said goodbye to me, Klaus minced his words, although he kept his usual refined and soft-spoken manner, and his usual steady gaze. 

On returning to a new cycle of studies, I noticed a deeper sadness in Klaus’ features. As his polite and attentive demeanour remained unchanged, I considered the possibility that my interpretation was mistaken, perhaps influenced by the experience of the previous year. Until that night, when the monastery was awoken by loud music. Without delay, they identified that the sound was coming from Klaus’ room. When they broke down the door, they found him collapsed from an overdose of anxiolytics and antidepressants. An obvious suicide attempt.

After taking Klaus to hospital, we heard that he was out of danger. The talk in the monastery was about the unimaginable attitude committed by one of the most prepared and balanced monks. Everyone was surprised. Almost everyone. I went to the Elder and told him that despite the warning, I hadn’t been able to help him. I admitted that I had failed. The good monk calmed my emotions: “Although nobody wanted what happened, we don’t always manage to provide the necessary help. It’s worth emphasising that there was no act that induced someone to attempt suicide; it was a voluntary and mistaken act. It was undoubtedly unbalanced and desperate. However, it was entirely his responsibility’’. And he warned me: “Don’t look for a guilt that doesn’t exist”. He paused and continued: “We don’t know the mysteries of life. Perhaps the event, sad as it is, will contribute to the transformation that Klaus needs, but believes he doesn’t have the strength to face; after all, there was an absurd attempt to escape. Nobody can escape from themselves. Not even in death”. Then he pondered: “Perhaps I’m preparing you to help him when he returns to the monastery. Something tells me that there will be many more chapters to this story”.

(To be continued in We are the legacy of our heritage).

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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