“Can you see what’s on the other side of the window?” the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery, asked me. I said no, the glass of the wagon was opaque because of the soot. The monk shrugged, closed his eyes and fell back to sleep. I was accompanying him on a short train journey to a university in a nearby city where he was to be one of the speakers at a symposium on planetary pollution. My studies to dissect and understand the Eight Gates of the Way, revealed in the passage of the Beatitudes, part of the Sermon on the Mount, central axis of the studies of the Order, continued. I thought of taking advantage of the journey to extract a little more of the Elder’s knowledge. The Sixth Gate said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the face of God”. Because of the previous Gates, I knew that this simple-looking phrase concealed a profound interpretation. I also knew, as he had taught me, that from one Gate to another it is necessary to develop one or more virtues in one’s being, which increase in degree of difficulty. There was no doubt that the key virtue of the Sixth Gate was purity. However, I had difficulty understanding the extent of the concept. Not infrequently, we catch ourselves trying to explain in words something that we imagine innate, that we believe we know very well, but when asked for a detailed explanation we end up stumbling over the words. Time, for example. Everyone knows about time; few will be able to explain it with clarity and depth. St. Augustine, when asked about time, said he knew what it was, however, if he had to explain, he would no longer know. Purity, as a virtue, was no different for me.
I found it strange that the Elder had been invited as a debater to a symposium on planetary pollution. Although he was a person aware of the need to preserve and regenerate the environment, he did not have the knowledge of biologists, chemists, oceanographers, engineers and other environmentalists who, by force of their profession, were led to know the subject more widely and deeply. However, it was only the beginning of my surprise. The debate started with an English advertiser talking about visual pollution. The enormous quantity of propaganda that we came across in the streets and on the roads was so enormous that we didn’t even notice it, hiding the planet from its inhabitants in an abusive way. From the most blatant ones, such as billboards, to the most disguised, such as the many logos, from cars to biscuits, including soaps and oil distributors. Then a North American musician spoke about noise pollution. He talked about the amount of noise that clogs our brains and hampers free thinking. To think we need silence and quietness, he explained. To escape from this situation, he noticed more and more people on the streets listening to music, books or news through headphones. They were leaving one trap to fall into another, as this not only prevented them from hearing the sounds of the world, but also made human coexistence difficult. Although the mind is a private territory, the world is common to all. No one lives only in the sphere of ideas, he pointed out. Even ideas need to interact and feed off others to expand. The planet, with this isolationist practice, diminished in size and possibilities. A kind of pollution that generated as an effect the abandonment of souls and the disregard between them. Of course, the sad degradation of forests and oceans was debated. However, it became clear that pollution had much broader and deeper aspects and spectrums, not all of which were noticed by everyone.
The debate was getting more and more interesting. The university’s amphitheatre overflowed with people standing or sitting on the floor and in the corridors. Students coming out of their classes passed by to listen a little and stayed. The last debater to speak was the Elder. Only at that moment I knew that his topic would be about spiritual pollution. I was startled, for I had never heard of it. The good monk, always with his serene voice, began the construction of his reasoning: “Everyone knows that the world expands or contracts according to the measure of our view.” There was not a single person in the audience who had never heard that phrase. The Elder continued, “My relationship with anyone is no different. I only see in you the beauty that the light of my eyes allows me to. Therefore, I can only understand what I am capable of seeing in its entirety. The light bulbs on in the nights of the big cities prevent me from seeing the stars; the smoke steals the clarity from the streets and roads; the thick fog closes the airports. The same may happen to my eyes remain when trying to understand your heart.”
He paused purposefully to continue: “My thoughts steeped in ancestral conditioning of fear and domination prevent me from seeing others as they really are; socio-cultural prejudices of any kind reduce the human dimension. My feelings vitiated by pride deny me dignity; vanity hides true beauty; jealousy represses my freedom to feel others as they in fact deserve to be perceived. The reciprocal becomes inevitable by the view covered by dust in the mind and contaminated by fungi in the heart. Thus, my ideas and affections are usually the main cause of a cloudy and opaque world; without grace, flavour and beauty. Worse still, a world that gets smaller by the day.”
“The Greek ideal of aesthetics is born of the purity of all things. According to Plato, that which is not pure cannot be considered beautiful in essence. Aesthetics will be led by the tracks of ethics in its intimacy. For the ancient Greeks, Beauty is only possible through the eyes of the virtues. There is truth in this.”
“With humbleness I allow myself to appreciate and be enchanted by someone else’s talent. Otherwise, out of pride, I crush myself in fruitless competition or foolish displays of superiority, while life drains away of existence.”
“With compassion you can see that behind that disastrous behaviour of mine there is beauty, only hidden by a suffering that I cannot contain, but that you can help me to care for. Patience to listen, a good word and the warmth of a hug spiritually cleanse the planet. Yes, love has this power. I promise that I will always look at you with the same eyes. A pure gaze, free from the shadows of the world.”
“With simplicity I can remove the mask of vanity that I wear to show myself as someone beautiful, but which in reality, out of insecurity, hides the true beauty I have: the richness of being unique; neither better nor worse than anyone else, just different.”
“Sincerity drives away the subterfuge of twisted reasoning that tries to convince me that there is nothing wrong with my mistaken choices. Without this, I will never have any honest relationship with anyone.”
He looked leisurely at the attentive audience, as if seeking each person’s eyes. And he asked a rhetorical question, as he did not wait for an answer: “Do you understand one of the most serious pollutions, the one that robs us of the transparency of everything and everyone?” He shrugged and reminded us of the inevitable: “And it robs us of ourselves.” And he continued: “The world will only be crystal clear to my eyes when I manage to be transparent to myself. For that I need purity in thinking and feeling so that the charm of life is not denied me.”
“Purity is like the cleaner of the soul. However, like all cleaning we need water, mop, broom and other cleaning products. One does not reach the transparency typical of purity without first going through the other virtues.” At that moment he specifically looked for my eyes in the audience. Without saying anything, I understood that he was referring to the five previous Gates. In the First Gate, through the virtues related to it, it was necessary for me to understand the value of spiritual goods over material goods in order to set foot on the Way. The Sixth Gate made me understand the value of purity: transparency in thinking and lightness in feeling in order to find the essence of the Way. The face of God, as encoded in the sacred text.
“The essence of life is ontological and metaphysical. In other words, roughly speaking, the essence of life is in our being and beyond apparent reality; in itself and beyond itself. As part and completeness.”
“Without purity one does not understand or reach oneself, truth and life.”
A student raised her hand. She wanted to know how to behave with purity in a world dominated by wickedness. The Elder arched his lips in a slight smile as if he had expected that question and replied with his enormous kindness, “To be naïve means not to perceive the wickedness around you. To be foolish is to perceive evil and live by its rules. To be pure is to have the wisdom in seeing the wickedness but not allowing yourself to be contaminated by it.” The girl questioned how this was possible. The monk explained, “With firmness and delicacy. For example, if someone is being dishonest with you it is naïve to allow the situation; it will be foolish to return the same behaviour. Purity consists of the firmness to say no, to set a limit to evil. Then use delicacy to show that another course of action is possible. There will always be clear waters beyond the murky springs.”
“Contaminated waters will only pollute your pure springs if you allow it. Otherwise, it is impossible for that to happen.” The student asked him to explain further. The monk was always helpful and generous: “For example, only one person can stop me from being free. Myself; absolutely no one else. So why can’t I? It is simple. With my mind and heart contaminated by atavistic concepts, I believe that the presence of a certain person by my side is fundamental for my happiness. By imprisoning someone to my desire and through my rules of domination I become hostage to the surveillance I have created myself.” He waited for some reaction. As he didn’t get one, he continued: “Another example? Only one person can prevent my dignity. Myself. All I have to do is not treat the other the way I would like him to treat me. Simple as that; but not so easily done.”
“It’d the same situation with peace, happiness and love. That is the part that is up to you, and me, in life and in art.”
“Without realizing it we have contracted blindness of the soul by drinking the water of life from a turbid fountain. It is no use abhorring and cursing dirty water; it is necessary to make it drinkable. Or we all shall die of thirst.” He paused again to conclude, “We will find clear and murky springs in various places. However, do not forget that, in truth, each one drinks the water of life at the source of his or her own being.”
The student thanked him. The auditorium erupted in applause. Yes, the Sixth Gate was all over the lecture given by the Elder on spiritual pollution. I desperately wanted to talk to him. But as he was very dear, several people accompanied us to the station. We were alone only when inside the wagon. The good monk was tired and closed his eyes as soon as he settled down in his chair. He opened one of his eyes naughtily, as if he knew what questions I would ask, pointed at the sooty glass and asked me: “Can you see what’s on the other side of the window?
Like a child amused by his own mischief, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic