My studies on the Eight Gates of the Way went on. The Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, had revealed to me that in the Sermon on the Mount, more precisely in the passage of the Beatitudes, the gates of the spiritual journey of enlightenment were encoded. As he had also taught me, in order to pass through each gate, the walker needs to have within him a certain group of virtues, which increase in degree of difficulty as he advances along the Way of light. The exercise of virtues makes a person better. The more they are inserted into our daily practices, the greater the feeling of plenitude. Having duly understood the three initial gates, I set out in search of due understanding of the Fourth one. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” The Master said, according to the letters of Matthew. It was undoubtedly, unlike the others, an easily understood gate: it required the virtue of justice. I told the monk, while he was pruning the roses in the monastery’s inner garden, that I considered myself a righteous man.
The Elder looked at me like someone standing in front of an intrepid but naive boy. He smiled with compassion and went back to tending the flowers. Not satisfied with his reaction, I asked if he did not consider me ready for the Fourth Gate. The monk looked at me again. This time there was patience in his eyes. He put the pliers in the pocket of his brown tunic and, as if he knew that this conversation would take a long time, sat down on the stone bench beside him. Then he replied in his serene voice: “I hope so.” I expressed indignation at his inconclusive answer. He explained: “I am not the gatekeeper. It is not for me to say if you are ready to proceed. My opinion won’t make the slightest difference. In fact, do not forget that in order to advance the Fourth Gate you must have passed through the previous three gates, carrying within you the practice of the virtues pertaining to each of them, with no exception. The preceding virtues are indispensable foundations for the virtues to come.” He paused and said, “I advise you to ask yourself whether you already fulfil all the conditions. Remember that this is an internal journey and the guardians of the Way are inexorable.” Without blinking, I affirmed that I had no doubt. Yes, I was a righteous man. I had never taken possession of anything that did not belong to me. Nor did I have any difficulty in discerning right from wrong or good from evil. I confess that my reasoning seemed to me of an undeniable obviousness and, for this reason, although in silence, I was internally jumping with contentment. Yes, only now I realized that, in truth, the Fourth Gate had already been left behind. By logic, the three previous thresholds were also no longer obstacles to my evolutionary journey. I did not contain myself and confessed my conclusion to the Elder. He just looked at me and said nothing.
Chance does not exist; the road of light has infinite paths, which cross unexpectedly, sometimes in order to protect the walker, sometimes in order to reveal the truth. Most of the time for both reasons, because the truth protects everyone, even those who run away from it. At that moment another monk, as we call the members of the Order, approached. His name was Vasquez, a Galician known for his frank way of expressing himself, with no worry about choosing the words to say what he thought. He said he needed to talk to me. I replied that we could talk right there. Vasquez complained that I had excluded him from one of the courses of that period. I claimed that he had arrived at the monastery two days after the classes had begun. The rules of the Order were clear and as coordinator of that course I had no other choice. The Galician argued that he had informed me that he would be late for personal reasons. He remembered that in the previous year, when he was responsible for another course, he had excused my absences, avoiding my exclusion from the classes. I pondered that at that time my delay was due to the cancellation of the flight by the airline company, a reason beyond my control and beyond my power to solve. However, I claimed, he only warned that he would arrive after classes had started, without at least justifying his absence. Vasquez said that everyone has their problems and that he didn’t detail them because he doesn’t like nor has the obligation to expose the intimacy of his personal life to anyone. As he understood things, the simple fact of saying he was unable to arrive on the scheduled date should have the same weight as the reasons I gave. That only we are able to tell the dimension and difficulty of our own problems. To believe that other people’s obstacles are easier to solve than ours is a common misconception. At the end he concluded by saying that I had to learn to be righteous. I replied that I was a righteous man. Vasquez looked at me firmly and said that to be righteous was to act as taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “treat others as you would like to be treated. He spun on his heels and left.
Indignant and astonished, I asked the Elder if he thought I had been unfair to Vasquez. The good monk shrugged again and muttered, “I have no idea.” I reminded him that our attitudes, mine and Vasquez’s, had different motivations, so they could not be treated the same. Different reasons lead to different decisions, I insisted.
The Elder argued, “Reasons are not always purely objective matters. Reasons are ideas that usually pass through the heart as they are constructed. Emotions create urges or brakes on our choices. It is difficult to measure and weigh the importance of each reason because of the load of subjectivity it usually carries. My life is not more or less important than anyone else’s. Each one encounters the difficulties concerning the learning process at that moment of their existence. Problems can be only problems or hidden lessons. It is a matter of finding or losing the master hidden in each one of them.”
“We ask for a deep understanding in relation to the seriousness of our problems; we plea to people to take into consideration our intentions; we beg them to understand our sufferings before they judge us. Our difficulties almost always demand complicated solutions by the value of the emotions they carry. However, we judge the world by the facts. Naked and raw. We ask for a little honey when we are defendants; we are strict as judges.”
I disagreed. I said that justice was the virtue of handing to each one what is rightfully his or hers. The rules of the monastery left no room for doubt. The Elder shook his head in denial and explained, “Justice is far removed from the laws. In fact, they rarely go hand in hand. I do not deny the importance of laws for the maintenance of social order. Justice, on the other hand, because it is a virtue, speak about personal peace. They are different things. The laws, when elaborated, take into consideration many factors exterior to conscience. Ancestral, social, territorial, cultural, financial, passionate, selfish, dominating issues, among others, are contained in the content of laws. They change in the time-space equation. Justice, on the other hand, is in conscience and changes according to the evolution of the individual. Different from a mere sentence handed down according to the molds of any legislation”.
I asked if the Fourth Gate encouraged me to disobey the laws. The Elder explained again: “The Fourth Gate speaks of justice. Therefore, it speaks primarily of love and dignity.
I asked him to be clearer. The monk was didactic: “Virtues, before being tools to improve one’s relationship with the world, are instruments to improve the relationship of the individual with himself, since they speak of personal evolution. There is no way to do good in the world without being good with oneself; I cannot love anyone if I have no love for myself and in myself; I am righteous with you because I want to be worthy with myself. That’s all.”
“One must put away the proud idea of being fair out of favour or pretended superiority in the opportunity to attend to some discomfort of another person. Be righteous out of your own need to live and feel the dignity in you. Be righteous out of love so that there will never remain debts and debtors towards your decisions. Or there will be no justice.” He paused to quote one of the variants of the Major Law: ‘I will do to others only what I would like them to do to me.'”
“Any attitude different from this idea is poor in love. Therefore, unworthy because it is unjust.”
“That is why the Fourth Gate is known as the Gate of Dignity. Only by giving what I would like to receive do I become a dignified person. I speak of all my relationships, from the most important to the most common of everyday situations.”
“Without love only petty interests remains, vile exercise of worldly power or, worse, the disgusting revenge. All far removed from justice and dignity.”
I remained without saying a word for a while. I had to clear my mind. To give to each one what he deserves is not one of the easiest tasks, since it involves breaking down the selfish ideas that have always sustained an ancestral way of thinking. I mentioned this to the Elder. He nodded in agreement and explained further: “The difficulty is even greater. All virtues are composed because they contain within themselves other virtues. Justice is a virtue of extreme complexity because it makes the presence of many other indispensable virtues, otherwise it will not exist. They are responsibility, honesty, sincerity, prudence, patience, firmness and wisdom. I asked him to speak a little about each of them. The Elder was a good teacher.
“Responsibility is the virtue that makes the individual understand his part in everything that happens in his life, its pains and delights. It drives away the shadow of victimization and brings closer the light of freedom. Responsibility is the art of designing one’s own destiny.”
“Honesty is the virtue linked to truth in relations with others. It is the antithesis of lying, fraud, undue advantage and privilege. Truth is always linked to one’s level of consciousness, which excludes lying from our relationships, not necessarily error. It is to be in good faith in dealing with others; it is the uprightness of speech and intentions. Honesty is the ally of simplicity because it does not admit trickery, dissimulation or lack of transparency. It is not enough not to lie; one must be committed to clarity. It is the art of living by the truth”.
“Sincerity is the virtue linked to truth in relation to oneself. It deals with the difficult task of not deceiving oneself. Sincerity does not negotiate with illusion. Sincerity illuminates our choices and are vital to the process of self-knowledge. It is the art of living with the truth.”
“Prudence is the virtue that alerts us to dangers, but also, and above all, to opportunities that arise. Contrary to what many believe, prudence is more connected to courage than fear. It reminds us that we can do things differently and better every day. Prudence warns us that far from righteous relationships we will be far from dignity. It is the art of living without forgetting the transforming power of love.”
“Patience reminds us that we are all in a learning process. That everything has its moment and shows us the importance of tolerance towards ourselves and others. Justice cannot exist without patience. Patience is the art of dealing with time.
“Firmness is the virtue that sets a limit to error and establishes the scope of tolerance. Just as tolerance keeps rigor out of relationships, firmness prevents abuse in them. It is the art of building respect.”
“Wisdom is the virtue of balance. It is the dividing line between waiting and acting; between patience and firmness; between enough and excess. It harmonises my needs in relation to life; the less I need the freer I will be. Free from shadows to discern with light. This makes wisdom paramount in the construction of justice. Moderation is the seed of serenity; it is the art of exact measure.”
“All these which I have just explained are called the middle-virtues, without which the end-virtue, justice, cannot be attained.”
We were silent again. Yes, the Elder was in no position to say whether my decision to exclude Vasquez from the course had been just. It would take a plunge into the depths of my consciousness, away from the shadows, close to the light of the soul, for me to understand the motivations of my decision, to admit whether what I handed over was as much as I thought was fair to be handed over to me. Only I could do this. I had been through a similar situation and he had acted differently with me than I did with him. No, my decision could not constitute a debt, because justice does not generate debt. Yes, the situations were not identical either. On the other hand, people go through unique experiences in their lives. This creates emotional difficulties that we often fail to understand because of our inability to feel what the other feels. A little empathy was needed; and empathy is about humbleness, compassion, generosity; virtues typical of the previous gates. Empathy is a beautiful way of loving. I went to sleep with this idea.
The next morning there was no doubt left. I looked for Vasquez and apologised to him. I admitted that I had been wrong to exclude him from the course. Since the course lasted a week, I said that perhaps my new understanding was too late, since a good part of the classes had already passed. I regretted this, and said that it had been a great lesson for me and a great loss for him. The Galician monk, famous for his temperament, not always moderate, looked me straight in the eye. It was a few, but long seconds. Then he offered me a sincere smile and opened his arms to hug me. He said that my attitude was valuable and that there was no longer any trace of resentment between us. He said that it is in the exercise of decisions, between mistakes and successes, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, that we broaden our consciousness. Choices are not always easy. He told me not to let myself be discouraged, since the unexpected free time, since he was not in the course, had served to read some books that he had been postponing for some time. He added that he had discussed the readings with the Elder and that his gains had been enormous. I was delighted with his great understanding. The episode served to make us friends until this day.
It also helped me to understand that knowing a gate does not mean having already crossed it. The distance is enormous; I know more than I am. Knowledge makes me an apprentice; only practice, in a distant day, will build the master.
It took some time for me to realize that the greatest lesson about the Fourth Gate had not been offered by the precious concepts that the Elder had made available to me about the virtues that make up justice, but by the Galician monk for, in a single gesture, offering me the other face of a conflict, the face that we tend to forget or ignore. The face of light. The idea of justice exists to prepare the walker for a much more complicated threshold to cross due to the difficulty of understanding, the Fifth Gate; the Gate of Forgiveness.