It was still early in the morning when the train left me at the station. After almost two years, I was walking again through the narrow, winding, centuries-old cobblestone streets. I was supposed to be happy to be back in the charming little town situated at the foot of the mountain that is home to the monastery. The wedding of one of the granddaughters of Loureiro, the shoemaker who loved books and wine, encouraged me to suspend my professional tasks. Work is very important for the spiritual improvement it provides, but friendships are also valuable for the same reason. Both are sacred when they make us better people; otherwise they remain in the mundane sphere only. I cancelled meetings and projects whose postponement would not cause any harm to the clients. For the other commitments, I decentralized the decisions to the team I had worked with for a long time and trusted completely. One must balance the needs of survival with those of transcendence. In truth, one must remain contained in the other: “The verticality of life makes sense when there’s harmony with the horizontality of existence. The two stems of the cross that meet at the central point. To apply the values of heaven in the world is to align the ego with the soul. Perfect harmony does not consist only in singing songs to the stars which light up the dark nights, nor in merely building safe boats which are indispensable for crossing rough seas, but in using them to guide their navigation”, the Elder, the oldest monk in the Order, once told me.
The faint bulbs of the century-old iron lamps protruded into the puddles formed by the early morning rain. The noise of my steps was muffled by the howl of the wind that seemed to compose a symphony as it crossed the streets like the blowing of a flute. A cinematographic scenery wasted due to a misunderstanding. We miss the beauty of the world every time we close the window of the soul. The fact that I was uncomfortable was because of a call made by the director of a large company. He was dissatisfied with the decisions I had made before travelling. It was the only big account in the agency, all the others were low budget. He threatened to terminate the contract if I did not return immediately to take close control of the campaign. The arguments that I would be in contact with the team responsible for the creation and elaboration of the advertisements were worthless, although, I made a point of clarifying, only if it was needed. Besides trusting the people who worked with me, I had not taken holidays for a long time. I needed to rest my body, which is strained by responsibilities, occupy my mind with other matters so that it could continue to expand and feed my spirit with different sources of daily life and routine, which, although good and clear, should not be the only ones.
I was pleased with Loureiro’s invitation. I would take the opportunity to pay a visit to the monastery to meet the Elder. I missed the cobbler and the monk. The wedding was beautiful. The bride and groom seemed delighted with such happiness and love. The church was packed, full of flowers and lit by hundreds of candles. I saw the Elder sitting opposite from where I was standing. From a distance, he waved and smiled at me. At the end of the beautiful ceremony, I greeted the bride and groom and exchanged a tight hug with Loureiro. It was not possible to exchange more than a few words. He was quite requested by the many guests, a situation that I already expected. I looked for the Elder, but could not find him. I was informed that he had returned to the monastery, high up on the mountain near the city, just after the ceremony. I was worried. Early the next morning I asked for a taxi to take me there. When I arrived, I was happy to hear that his health was fine. However, we could not stay for long conversations, as we usually did, because that day he would begin a symposium on the Gospel of Thomas. It was restricted to monks considered initiates, the name used for those who had deepened their studies to a point that I had not yet reached.
I knew a little about the Gospels. There are more than forty, written since the beginning of the Christian era, a period when revolutionary ideas based on love and other virtues were sown as instruments of transformation and evolution. An epoch whose followers, among them the apostles, called themselves The Men of the Way. According to tradition, it was Paul who coined the term Christianity because he considered it more appropriate to the cause. The Catholic Church recognises only four gospels as canonical, that is to say, those that conform to the rules and directives it establishes as the standard for the knowledge of divine or cosmic truth. Those of Matthew, Mark and Luke are considered synoptic because they narrate various facts of the human life of Jesus in the same sequence and in a similar way. The fourth, by John, is more poetic and of a delicate spirituality, more connected to the Christic essence of the passage of Jesus than to the worldly events lived by him. I like to highlight the opening paragraph of the Book of John, originally written in Greek. In it, the word Logos, has been translated as Verb. It is not wrong, but the same word accepts other interpretations and could have been translated as Consciousness. Then, the beautiful opening of this Gospel would rise to higher levels of comprehension in a new and esoteric reading: “In the beginning there was Consciousness, and Consciousness was with God and Consciousness was God. It was in the beginning with God”. It is worth a good reflection. The breadth of understanding will always be personal.
The other Gospels are considered apocryphal. A word that also comes from Greek, apocryphal means hidden, mysterious, although in our language there are depreciative interpretations. Of these, the books attributed to Bartholomew and Thomas, among some others, are considered Gnostic because of the very high spiritual content and the guidelines that they offer to the knowledge of the cosmic truth. Like the others, they have a ciphered language. However, they are more difficult because of their greater depth. In order to understand the reason for such hermeticism, we have to take into consideration the dangerous historical context of persecutions at that time, besides the need to overcome the rigorous ancestral prejudices set in stone throughout the centuries. It is a singular reading, according to the capacity of understanding acquired by each reader, but it requires a keen and sensitive eye, capable of an interpretation outside the standards set as unique and true, without which many of the possibilities of understanding contained in the texts and even beyond them would be removed. If we consider each word as a capsule of ideas, these will have the beauty, depth and clarity of the degree of consciousness of the one who interprets them.
“To you it is given the understanding of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, while to the people I only speak to them in parables”, Jesus would have said to his disciples, as recorded in various gospels. A language adapted to each of the interlocutors, at the level of their personal capacity of understanding. One step at a time. Thus, although the truth has always been available, each one at his or her own time, everyone will reach the heights of understanding. “For nothing is hidden that will not be manifested,” also stated the great master, in the sense that there is a need to remove the appearances that hide the essence. “When your gaze becomes simple, the whole universe will be transformed into light,” he taught.
The Gospel of Thomas does not speak of passages or facts lived by the master. The apostle writes down one hundred and fourteen aphorisms or sentences said by Jesus when he was alone with his disciples. According to ancient Christian tradition, Thomas would have gone to disseminate the Christian teachings in the East, where he came into contact with that rich, thousand-of-years-old culture. Perhaps it is not by chance that the aphorisms noted down by Thomas sometimes resemble the language of Lao Tse in his Tao Te Ching. In Madras, India, there is the Cathedral of Saint Thomas, where the tomb of the apostle is said to be.
The Elder received me with his peculiar politeness. With a sincere smile, a tight hug and sweet words, he was happy to meet me. Then he explained that he could not give me the attention I wanted at that moment, because the symposium on the Gospel of Thomas would soon begin and he made a reservation: “According to a respectable Christian view, the author of this Gospel is not Thomas. In the papyri found in Egypt it is written that These are the secret sentences spoken by the living Jesus, perhaps a way of saying that they were written down by those who heard them. Further on, it clarifies that Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down. Dídimo in Greek and Thomas in Coptic mean the same thing: twin. It is said that Judas Thaddeus would be James’ twin and the way used to differentiate from the other apostle also called Judas, the Iscariot. However, the intention of our study is not to discuss historical questions nor to settle doubts about the authorship of the text. We will stick only to understand the lessons offered and, for now, codified”. I apologized for my unannounced and untimely arrival. I knew that I could not attend the course because I had not yet graduated, and I said that our long conversations, which I enjoyed so much, would have to wait for another time. The monk, as is usual with kind people, undid my embarrassment and proposed: “Nothing is by chance. Stay and take part in the symposium”. Then he showed his enormous generosity: “Just like the others, you will add value with your presence.” I immediately accepted the invitation.
I went to the auditorium and settled in. To my surprise, the person sitting next to me was the director of the multinational company who had threatened to terminate the contract with the agency if I left during the campaign period. I had never seen him during my many periods of study at the monastery nor did I know that he was a monk, as the members of the EOMM – Esoteric Order of Mountain Monks are called. Frederico was his name. It was not difficult to imagine that he had been a member for longer than me or that he had dedicated more to his studies, in order to be accredited for that course. His astonishment was even greater when he saw me. Frederico remained taciturn, clearly showing his annoyance at my presence.
After the preliminary explanations on the Gospel of Thomas, the Elder said that he would follow the study on each aphorism without obeying the sequence in which they appear in the text. Following his own intuition, he opened the symposium by dwelling on sentence twenty-seven: Unless you fast before the world, you shall not find the Kingdom; unless you keep the Saturday as a Saturday, you shall not see the Father.
I scratched my head at the difficulty of the riddle. In fact, the aphorism had a language similar to the poetry of the Tao. The Elder with his immeasurable wisdom facilitated our interpretation: “What would be fasting before of the world?” Faced with the silence of the auditorium, he continued: “Those who are hungry for the things of the world grow fat without expanding themselves. Day after day, they live life as if they were in a restaurant. They try all the dishes on the menu, they are satiated only for brief moments, without any meal nourishing them.”
“They live life for pleasure. Are they wrong? Of course not! Everyone should live pleasantly. The following question is fundamental to explain the previous one. What is the pleasure you seek? If it is the power of feeling the greatest of all, you will be driven to dominate anyone who threatens your desires. If it is the spectacular vanity of applause, you will manipulate your relationships like a make-up box, always with the intention of hiding imperfections and highlighting virtues that do not yet exist. If it is the laugh of outrageous irony, you will show the vice of belittling someone to feel good, even if only briefly. If it is the insistence on discourse that leads crowds like waves that destroy everything in their path, in the illusion of transforming the world before pacifying yourself, you will spread suffering in vain, for not knowing the search nor understanding the intended result. If it is only the sensorial pleasures of bed and table without the deep feelings and reasoning of the soul, you will remain fragile and hungry. If it is the accumulation of goods in the hope of guarding against the inevitable unforeseen events of life, fear will be your master and greed your employer. For those, the world will be a place full of disaffection and trouble; existence will be but an unpleasant and, in the end, a frustrating journey.”
“Epictetus, a Greco-Roman stoic philosopher whose thinking had great influence with the early Christians, taught that to live for pleasure was to perfect virtues and expand consciousness. This would allow choices that makes us free by prioritising values that transcend matter and dignify the individual. He said that everything in life has two fundamental aspects. There is that which belongs to us; and everything else we possess only as users. In truth, our possessions are only those that add attributes to the spirit, that is, virtues, conscience and choices; all immaterial. The rest, such as property, jobs, fame, reputation and even the body, since it is transitory, ephemeral and susceptible to the storms of existence, such as imprisonment and limitations due to persecution or illness, ensure little or nothing for the beauty of life. For the philosopher, the values of the spirit clear the way and give impetus to existence. Besides being impregnable. On the other hand, the conquests linked to the conditioning of the world, still connected to ancestral patterns of fear and ignorance, are weak and the cause of all suffering, because of the dependencies they create and end up enslaving us. It is also worth remembering that Epictetus was Greek, and although he was sold as a slave in Rome and submitted to ill-treatment to the point of being crippled when he was very young, he was a free, happy, dignified, loving man who lived in peace. His ideas were like guiding stars to lead several generations through the dark nights of existence to the dawn of the soul.”
“Should we give up the things of the world? Again, the answer is no. However, material goods have not been arranged in the world only for consumption. This merely fattens the diner. All matter exists for the purpose of serving as an instrument for the transformation of the individual. To work without the intention of accumulating, to enjoy without the intention of possessing, to relate without the desire to dominate, to live without oppressing. This is how we fast. This strengthens us, for the less we need the things of the world, the freer we will be.”
“Fasting is giving up the vices, the apparent needs that we believe we cannot live well without. When we talk about addictions, we are usually restricted to those most talked about, such as tobacco, alcohol, anxiolytics, among other drugs, licit or not. However, there are many more. There are, for example, the intellectual addictions that prevent us from thinking outside the established standards and prejudices, imperceptible to most people. We also have the cruel emotional addictions whose menu has as ingredients pride, vanity, jealousy, greed, among other shadows, all indigestible because of the hurt, envy and irritation they cause”. He shrugged as someone commenting on the obvious: “By removing the ego from the soul we distance ourselves from ourselves. Then there will be no Kingdom”.
The Elder took a sip of water and continued: “The subsequent part of the aphorism seems to explain and reinforce the previous one. What would it be to keep the Saturday as a Saturday, at the risk of not seeing the Father?”
“In the ancient traditions, while it was recommended to the individual to take care during the week of matters pertaining to survival, the Sabbath was intended for transcendence. In other words, it warned to take care of the necessities of existence without neglecting the values that are indispensable to life. Away from the soul, the ego is like a disoriented dog that will bite its own master. When ignoring the soul, the ego is saddened by the feeling of abandonment that invades it. Alongside the soul, the ego becomes a guard dog protecting us from the evils of the world. Live in the world without ever forgetting to move the heaven within you. When we succeed, we feel protected and enlightened”.
He paused briefly for everyone to absorb those words and finished: “What does it mean not to be able to see the Father? He, the Father, resides in the conscience of each person, as John guided us in the opening of his gospel. We come face to face with God when the strength to perceive ourselves as whole pulsates within us, and that’s only possible when the ego stops belittling the soul and harmonises with it.” He looked at the monks as if revealing a secret and asked a rhetorical question: “Have you noticed how many we are within ourselves? Inside the mind of each individual there seems to be a chat room, as if many people were dialoguing and discussing, searching for guidance and solutions. In truth, we are many in one. Ego and soul are the main interlocutors, but there are other influences. Memories, prejudices, values, interests, frustrations, dreams, fears, reflections, intuitions, instincts, are some of the components which participate in each decision taken. It is indispensable that all of them look in the same direction and have unity of purpose. It is necessary to understand the destination in order to establish a route. Otherwise, we will walk without going anywhere. I will see the Father when I am able to meet him in my own face.”
“A good sign is when I perceive the pleasure that exists in the silent affection of a tight embrace, in the affection of a sincere smile, in the strength of an honest choice, when I listen with patience, expose my reasons with serenity, allow myself a different point of view and choose out of love. These are the eternal riches of life, imperishable by time, theft-proof and that require no authorisation from the law. All that is needed is attention and willpower. Nothing else.
“The Plenitudes exist to be experienced in the world, but they do not belong to it. They are yours, because they are inside you. To have them, while delighting in the flavours and learning from the dislikes of the world, you will have to find heaven within yourself.”
At the end of the talk there was a lively debate, although the clarity with which the Elder expressed his ideas made it much easier to understand the philosophical content. Frederico was one of the most talkative, showing an enormous capacity to articulate his thoughts. Quiet in the corner of the auditorium, I was amazed how, from a hermetic saying, difficult to interpret or apparently meaningless to many people, the Elder had constructed a reasoning that lent immeasurable value and meaning to life, at the same time showing all the power and strength that can be contained in each individual from new and diverse consciential perspectives.
Then we went to the refectory for lunch. I took advantage of the fact that Frederico was alone at one of the tables and sat down in front of him. He looked at me with indifference and angrily told me not to waste the opportunity I had. I answered that the lecture had been wonderful and, for sure, after metabolized, would bring me many gains. The director of the multinational said that he was referring to the advertising contract that the company had with the agency. I explained that he should not worry and quoted a famous biblical teaching: “We know the tree by its fruits. The result of the work will show its due value. Before this, any analysis is premature”. Frederico threatened again to terminate the contract if I did not return immediately to follow the project closely. He said he should have done this already, but was willing to give me a chance. He added that if he saw me at the monastery the next day it would mean that my deadline had run out. Before the meal was over, he stood up and left me with the bitter feeling of having a sword around my neck.
As we had an afternoon without any activity, I took the opportunity to sit on the pleasant balcony, facing the mountains, where I always liked to meditate and reflect. The situation was very uncomfortable for me. I had seen what an intelligent and persuasive man Frederico was. People were enchanted by his arguments. His words flowed with ease and logic. I even considered returning that afternoon. However, I had made a meticulous strategy before travelling. I had planned all the details carefully, I trusted the creative team, and I talked to them whenever necessary. Everything was going according to plan, there was nothing to fear, except Frederico’s demand. I asked myself if I was, in fact, wrong to be there and not in the agency, after all, I was paid to run the campaign. On the other hand, if I had done the right thing, at the limit of my conscience, I could be at peace, regardless of the decision he made, despite the financial damage it could cause me. Otherwise, I would become a slave to his intransigence. If there was money at stake, my freedom would not be one of the tiles on this gambling.
I noticed that in Frederico’s speeches there was a great satisfaction in influencing the people around him and he did this with enormous pleasure. The quantity of admirers was more important than the quality of the ideas. Therefore, according to my conscience, going back would not be a sensible decision based on good arguments, but a mere will of Frederico, sustained by a vice of behaviour linked to the manipulation of the people around him, as a necessary exercise to exalt pride and vanity. If the maladjustment was his, it was not my place to feed his shadows by allowing them to influence my choices. Otherwise, I would decide under the guidance of fear, a terrible counsellor. Aggravating Frederico’s shadows would awaken mine and throw me into darkness. This was not about stubbornness, but about principles. By standing firm on my code of ethics, I would keep myself in the light. Based on that reasoning, the choice was not so difficult.
The next day, Frederico avoided me at breakfast. When a message came into my mobile phone, I was already prepared for the news. It was from the agency warning about the termination of the contract. I couldn’t prevent him from making any decision, but I could prevent the best of me from being lost. This is the only and immeasurable power I have. I knew the financial losses would be great, but the existential gains were greater. Nothing that I might lose through circumstances beyond my control deserves any tears or lamentation. They are all things of the world; ephemeral and temporary. All accessory, none essential.
The days passed. I continued the symposium with immeasurable joy and lightness. I even dared to participate more intensely in the debates. I felt strengthened. Noticing my change, the Elder came to talk to me. He commented that I was in a better mood. I told him what had happened and the choices I had made. I confessed that I was delighted with this power and intended to use it more each day. The monk arched his lips in a smile as if in agreement. I added that the lessons of the Gospel of Thomas had helped me a lot. Then I dared to make an analysis of Federico’s personality and the difficulties he had. At this instant the Elder frowned and interrupted me seriously:
“Don’t judge, or you will put everything to waste”.
“If we consider in judgment only the facts, we will overlook other important aspects. No matter how well we know someone, we know little about that person and the motivations for their sufferings. This shows the inconsequence of worldly verdicts. More serious, in judging we include all the factors that still bleed within us. The measure of the scales is not gauged only by our virtues, as we like to believe, but also influenced by the frustrations and shadows that we still feed. With each judgment we imprison ourselves more to the world by taking into consideration typical situations of suffering, rebellions, dissatisfaction and sorrows that torment us, many of which are hidden in dark corners of the unconscious. Avoid the typical voluptuousness of dense passions and keep away from temptations by judgements, because while you are hungry for questions relating to existence you will not be able to digest transcendence. In order to build oneself it is not necessary to destroy anyone”. He paused and concluded: “You are the path. Everything else is landscape”.
Ashamed, I lowered my eyes. A fine step here, a stumble just ahead. I had fasted from the things of the world, but I did not know how to keep the Sabbath. The application of cosmic lessons demands endless attention.
I watched the Elder walk away with his slow but steady steps.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.