The way God talks to us

This story happened a long time ago. I was in my first cycle of studies at the Order. My life seemed to fall apart a little more every day, like a crumbling building that slowly collapses its bricks under the effect of the cold wind of endless winter afternoons. My marriage was over, my job no longer satisfied me. No-one was telling me the words I wanted to hear. Insomnia was my companion every night; anxiolytics had become indispensable spices for dinner. Life no longer had any flavour. I needed to talk to God; only He could rescue me from the dark abyss that was devouring me. I told this to the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery, who looked at me with sweet compassion and said: ‘It will be a long time before it happens. There are too many walls preventing you from talking to Him. He’s always telling you all the things you need to know, but you can’t listen to him’. I said that this argument gave me a sense of guilt, because the impossibility was due to my incompetence. It didn’t seem fair; I needed it just as much as anyone else. Without losing his composure, the good monk corrected me: ‘In this case, incompetence doesn’t mean inability, but lack of preparation. Just as you can’t cook before you know how to use the fire. There’s nothing anyone can’t learn if they have the determination’. I argued that I couldn’t wait. It was my last hope that I wouldn’t give up on God. I added that there was honesty in my words. The Elder nodded and added: “I know. However, no one can put you in a place where you’re not ready to be. It’s not that you lack the will; it’s that you lack the understanding. Only you can stand before Him; to do that, you’ll have to get there on your own two feet. There’s no other way.” I promised that I would dedicate myself to my studies and exercise my faith. In short, I would do all the necessary preparation. I was willing to speed up the process. The Elder remained serene: “There are no shortcuts on the Path; it’s impossible to skip stages. Evolution doesn’t take leaps; you need to illuminate the ground to know where to put your feet. One at a time, without haste. Understanding is as slow as a soup that needs to simmer to purify the impurities and excesses until only the essence remains. High heat roasts the outside and leaves the inside raw, leaving a lot to waste. There will be many mistakes and serious falls. Some of which will be difficult to get out of.

I asked him if the impurities he was referring to were mistakes made in the past. I said that I was sincerely sorry for all of them. The good monk frowned and said firmly: “Admitting mistakes, although a noble and humble attitude, will only become complete forgiveness if we understand the true motivations that led us to those behaviours and choices. In addition to a sincere commitment to constantly improving our way of being and living. This will prevent them from happening again. As long as this doesn’t happen, we are prevented from moving forward on the Path’.

He paused before continuing: ‘Believe me, this process has such deep layers that it usually takes a long time to complete. It’s essential to uncover them one by one, without haste or fear. Only then, by breaking down all the walls that prevent us from discovering who we are not, will we be ready for existential innovations. A sacred place where God’s voice becomes audible.” I remarked that time was a master. The Elder gently corrected me again: “Time will never be a solution in itself. Time is just a road. There are those who travel it with attention and respect, when time will no longer be measured by days, but by the transformations carried out in the core of themselves. This will reflect the way we walk through the world; despite the challenges, there will be no shortage of fragrant and colourful flowers. However, as long as we refuse to understand this road, we will avoid the challenges and time will continue to appear in hours. There will be nothing left but the aridity of the desert in our wake.’

The Elder asked to be excused, as he needed to prepare for the next day’s lessons, and left. I spent the afternoon thinking about that conversation without being able to reach any conclusions. It was a sleepless night. The transformation of our being in our living is the elixir of the soul, written on a small plaque in one of the corridors leading to the rooms, was nothing more than a pile of empty words. 

Before dawn, I decided to leave. The monastery is a deception. Life has no meaning, it’s just suffering and emptiness; some are blessed and have everything, others, like me, are cursed and bear the mark of abandonment, I told myself, wallowing in regrets, like someone savouring their own pain. I left without saying goodbye.

As I walked down the narrow road that snaked through a huge gorge towards the small town at the foot of the mountain, I was awoken by a voice with the intensity of a whisper pleading for help. I let my eyes get used to the dimness of the early morning and I could see, in the distance, a body hanging from a tree. 

Without hesitating, I made my way through the woods to the place where a woman had been saved from her own despair. When she had jumped off the cliff in an attempt to commit suicide, the hood of her coat had got caught in the branch of a tree, preventing her from falling any further. I helped her down. She hugged me in tears. A convulsive cry prevented her from speaking. I took her back to the road. Before long, a lorry carrying milk, fruit and vegetables stopped to give us a lift. Back at the monastery, we were promptly attended to by the monks. The Elder asked a group of nuns to bathe, change, feed and care for Valentina’s wounds, as the young woman was called. There were only a few small abrasions on her body, but her soul bore a huge wound that had been open for a long time and was bleeding profusely.

It made me not want to leave. Something, still inexplicable to me at that moment, sparked my interest in the unfolding drama, as if the light that would illuminate the woman could help me out of the darkness I found myself in. The Elder let her rest for two days, while she received care from the Order’s nuns. When he decided to talk to Valentina, not by chance, he invited me to accompany him.

In general terms, Valentina’s story was common to many other people. She had a childhood and adolescence of strong repression from her parents, who always criticised her for not doing her chores according to their expectations. No matter how hard she tried, she never managed to please them. She married at an early age in an attempt to find in her husband the understanding and approval she had never been able to get before. However, the scenes of her adult life repeated the disapproval she had always felt, without ever being able to satisfy her husband, just as she had done while living with her parents. She had plunged into a downward spiral of loathing for who she was. There was an absolute lack of self-esteem. She was convinced that she was good for nothing and the world was not a good place to live.

With the enormous patience that comes from his infinite compassion, the Elder said in a serene but firm voice: “We can’t stop others from belittling us, but we must protect ourselves from words that mistreat us. To do so, you just have to realise that these words often reveal the mess in the heart of those who spoke them.” He paused and added: ‘If they are fair, after discarding any aggressive bias that poisons their content so that no hurt or suffering remains, use them to improve yourself.’ Valentina claimed that, in fact, she couldn’t perform some tasks well. However, in others, she considered herself very good. The monk pondered: ‘No one can fulfil every task with mastery. There will always be tasks that we do better than others. It’s a question of taste and gift. This applies to you, me and everyone.’ He paused to emphasise an important point: ‘We need to be careful that criticism doesn’t become an instrument of domination. This happens when we allow ourselves to be dependent on the approval of those who make little of us. When this happens, we become hostages to compliments that never arrive. This creates the nefarious master-slave relationship that must be avoided at all costs.”

He continued: “Don’t wait for payment from someone who doesn’t owe you. No one has an obligation to fulfil anyone else’s expectations. No healthy relationship gives rise to the figure of a creditor. Love does not generate debt. Marriage, parent-child relationships, friendship, favours and charity don’t either, because they are not built through emotional loans, but through love. Be sincerely grateful for all the good they have done you and, whenever possible, repay them to the best of your ability, even if they never ask. However, never allow your gratitude to be manipulated to the point where it becomes a tribute that is difficult or impossible to pay, distorting the good into the shadows of subjugation. Don’t allow yourself to be dependent on anyone’s approval or praise. Remember that your joy and happiness cannot be in the hands of anyone other than yourself. Self-love is born from the perception of individual evolution in motion. Therefore, always strive for personal improvement and feel the lightness of the days provided by the growth of your wings. This is the embryo of all plenitudes.”

Valentina shook her head. She said that the good monk didn’t understand. Her story didn’t end with the rejection of those closest to her. The extension had a dreadful detail: ‘My husband filed for divorce to marry my best friend’. She paused and confessed: ‘I have a lot of anger inside me’. She then asked: ‘How can the days become smooth for someone who hates so much?’. In tears, she admitted: ‘I didn’t want to feel angry, because I know it’s bad for me, but it won’t go away. I can’t get it out of me.”

The Elder turned to me, who was watching like an attentive apprentice, and asked what guidance I would give Valentina to free herself from the hatred that imprisoned her. Surprised at being invited to participate, I suggested that she ask God for the help she needed to free herself from that harmful emotion. As if she had heard this suggestion many times before, Valentina said she had already made a promise not to feel so much hatred any more and lamented: ‘God doesn’t hear me’.

The good monk corrected her: ‘He hears you. However, if he makes you get rid of anger just because you’re suffering because of it, God wouldn’t help you with the breadth and depth that the situation offers.’ He paused, as if choosing the right words for the right understanding, and then said: ‘If he were to help you straight away, later on, when faced with other setbacks, you would feel angry again. Then all you have to do is ask him to free you from hatred once more. Then again and again, in an endless sequence. A dependency, or even an addiction, that would do nothing to help you evolve. You would continue to be a person unknown to yourself, wasting the opportunity to learn how to turn on your own light as a way of driving away the darkness within you once and for all.”

The woman interrupted him. She sobbed with her face wet with tears and tried to justify giving up on life: ‘God doesn’t like angry people. He doesn’t like me. I’m not a good person.”

The Elder began to reveal the beauty of his soul and his disconcerting way of thinking. The good monk said sweetly: ‘That’s a misconception. Although anger is an emotion that needs light and transmutation, it is precisely through anger that God will make you reach Him.’

Valentina said she didn’t understand that reasoning. The good monk clarified: ‘You will need to awaken within yourself a love that is still unknown in order to transform that anger into compassion. You’ll have to realise that everyone lives within the limits of their own conscience and within the limits of the love they already have. There’s no way anyone can go beyond that. This will allow us to understand our momentary incapacities, forgive ourselves and begin a journey of existential innovation, without weight or guilt. It’s the start of a dignified and free relationship with ourselves. The same perception and sensitivity will be present in relation to the behavioural difficulties of other people in our life, in the fair understanding that we can’t demand perfection from anyone since we don’t have it to offer. This will be the start of a dignified and free relationship with the world. This is the root of all forgiveness.”

He let her allocate those words and completed his reasoning: ‘However, be careful that compassion doesn’t let you forget respect. Remember, one virtue never cancels out another. Respect for another person only exists when you have respect for yourself; otherwise, it’s just fear. Respect is the demarcation line that you must impose on the world, it delimits a person’s sacred space. Don’t demand of me the payment that I don’t owe, say it without any trace of aggression, but with all the firmness, courage, clarity and serenity that the situation demands. This self-awareness makes us strong and balanced. To do this, you must love yourself. The cycle begins with the flowering of love within you and ends with the fructification of this love in the world. Love breaks down the walls that prevent us from hearing God’s voice. Then your dialogue with God will be more intense than ever. You will hear his voice with stunning clarity and he will make himself present in the world through you.” He paused and finished: ‘And all this was only possible because of your anger, from the moment you decided to heal it from the inside out instead of waiting indefinitely for an intervention that, although it would save you effort, would leave no trace of development. It would be a naïve method with no evolutionary attributes whatsoever.’

He went on to explain: ‘Feeling angry is very bad and is the source of many psychosomatic illnesses. In order to free yourself from it, it is essential that you understand its causes. Fools insist on merely expelling hatred from their guts. Despite their good intentions, they are doomed to failure. It is essential that you understand the reasons why it has taken hold of you. At this point, prayer and meditation will be useful, not because they will expel your anger, but because of the calm they will bring to your heart and the clarity that will be allowed into your mind. Only then will it be possible to start reversing the process, making the hatred wither until it disappears forever. To deconstruct anger, or any other dense emotion, it is essential to know how it was built up inside us; its reasons, motives and foundations. You have to dismantle its foundations until no ruins remain. You shouldn’t build a home on a floor of rubble. Only once the ground has been properly cleared will it make room for healthy feelings and clear thoughts, even in the memory of complicated situations. Memories that were once sad become sources of instruction. Compassion awakens forgiveness and makes us immune to hatred. Only by educating our emotions do we become masters of ourselves. There is no freedom or dignity as long as thoughts are tied to unhealthy passions.’

Valentina wanted to know if there was another way to deal with the emotions that caused so much harm. The Elder clarified: ‘Those who believe that they have managed to get rid of their sorrows without understanding their causes and motives have in fact only hidden them like someone who sweeps dirt under the carpet. They don’t see it, but it’s still there. At the first gale, the carpet will be lifted and the dust will contaminate the house. Poisoned, your heart will mess up your mind. You will remain a slave to hatred, even if you believe that the reason for its presence is because of the fault of others. It’s a lie we tell ourselves, since we can’t let ourselves get sick because of other people’s behaviour. The most dangerous illnesses are those that disguise their symptoms’.

He paused to conclude with a series of questions: ‘Do you understand that God listens to everyone? Do you realise that his language is the wisest for teaching us how to solve problems? The most loving for leading us to absolute healing by freeing us from any dependency? The fairest for allowing each individual to walk in the measure of the awareness they have reached, the love they are willing to conquer and the effort they make to align themselves with the light?”

He looked at me sideways and whispered like someone telling a secret: ‘If you want to hear God, start by tearing down your emotional walls that prevent His voice from reaching your heart. If you don’t hear His words, it means that there are still walls getting in the way of the conversation.’

The Elder excused himself because he had to get back to his work, got up and left. Noticing an unruly tear on my cheek, Valentina was concerned: ‘I’ll be fine,’ she consoled me. I was honest: ‘I’m crying for myself,’ I confessed. ‘Listening to your conversation with the Elder, it was as if I saw my image reflected in a mirror. The cause of all my suffering was that I always waited for the approval of the people who mattered to me. As it never happened, I feel as if a piece of me is missing. I remain in the dark”. Listening to Valentina’s story and the Elder’s explanations while enjoying the quiet of the monastery seemed to show me the doors I would have to go through. They had always been there, but I couldn’t see them. ‘This must be the voice of God,’ I muttered. Then I concluded the reasoning that was becoming clear at that moment: ‘However, this piece of me cannot be in anyone’s hands, because it is part of who I am. Otherwise, I’ll be giving others power over my happiness. I’ll never have peace; incompleteness is the cause of all conflicts, whether internal or external. My approval is enough. I will be accountable to Time, a sacred guardian in the service of the Light. No-one else”.

One candle lights another without harming its own light, it said on another plaque, one of many scattered around the monastery’s corridors.

Many years passed without me meeting Valentina. I knew that she had become a nun in the Order, studied engineering and wrote poetry. ‘I’m a poet by gift and an engineer by profession,’ she used to say. Until our periods of study coincided. The reunion was marked by intense joy. Life had brought us face to face at a time when, each in our own way, we were both thinking of giving up on the light. There was a mutual redemption that deserved a celebration.

We went to the monastery canteen to celebrate with two mugs of coffee. I had made some progress and wanted to know how she had pacified the enormous anger she felt at the time. Valentina confessed: ‘It wasn’t easy.’ Then she explained: ‘Some people had a lot of power over my happiness. This created imbalance and fragility. Everyone only has as much power over us as we give them. When that happens, it leads to emotional abuse. Without realising it, this is exactly what made me so angry.’

She took a sip of coffee and continued: ‘However, I can’t complain if I caused the events by granting such undue permission. The solution, although simple, required courage: to impose limits. To regain power over my own life. This was only possible when I realised that I no longer needed anyone’s approval to live the joy of my days. Coherence with my guiding principles and values was enough to bring back the strength and balance I had lost. I realised that happiness and peace will always be within the reach of a courageous choice, the one that leads me to face myself and reveal to the world the truth of who I am, my achievements and difficulties, without escape or lies’. She winked like someone telling a secret and said: ‘I owe accounting only to Time, the Guardian of the Path. No-one else has the power to judge me. Only then was I able to forgive myself. It’s liberating.’

I wanted to know how she felt about her ex-husband and the friend he married. Valentina joked as she spoke through gritted teeth: ‘Not only did they get married, but they had two beautiful children. They seem to make a harmonious family’. She gave a mischievous smile and confessed: ‘I felt hatred again when I heard that. However, I had learnt to deal with this emotion. This time, I didn’t deny it or repress it. I embraced hatred like someone looking after a rebellious child and educated it. I told anger that some people come into our lives just to teach us a lesson and then leave, having fulfilled their role. They had taught me to illuminate my hatred and transform it into compassion; this freed me from the prisons imposed by overwhelming passions. I am sincerely grateful to them for this. I learnt how to forgive myself too, because there’s always the spurious feeling that we’ve lost something because we were incompetent. This makes us angry with ourselves. So we beat ourselves up. Sometimes we think we don’t deserve the honey of life because we’re incapable. So we hide from ourselves and feel ashamed of who we are. However, not all people or situations are here to stay, because they are like connection points that lead us in another direction of existence, a destination that will show us the unthought-of magic of the days. To do so, we need to be open and available to the unusual on the Path. Forgive, trust and move on. Only then. In this way, forgiveness becomes a fantastic life tool, accessible for all occasions, as if it were capable of transforming insurmountable walls into simple chalk scratches on the ground.’

Valentina clarified: ‘The sincere desire for the couple’s happiness has made my happiness return and dignity has laid an even stronger foundation for the pillars of strength and balance in me. Peace has found a permanent home in my heart.’ She took another sip of coffee and said: ‘As I walked through the door that had always been waiting for me, but until then had been invisible to me, a new path presented itself’. She gave a charming smile, showed a ring on the ring finger of her right hand and revealed: ‘I met someone at the company where I work. I’ve never felt so good in my life’. I joked that the whole thing deserved a poem. She kept surprising me: ‘I’ve written several, so many that it’s turned into a book. It will be launched at the end of the year, right after the wedding celebration. All in a single ceremony.’ Then she added: ‘Life becomes fantastic, in every sense of the word, when we understand its rhythm and invite it to dance.’

I asked her about her parents, with whom she also faced many difficulties. Valentina said: ‘They got older; they started to need more and more help and care. As my brothers refused to make any commitments, I brought them to live near me. I can look after them and give them the love they refused to receive all their lives. It was another valuable rescue made possible by forgiveness. We live together marvellously, there is always joy and affection in our relationship. Life worked out a way for us to align and learn more about love. It’s a fantastic opportunity’. She took another sip of coffee and added: ‘My siblings think I look after my parents because I feel guilty or something.’ She smiled, shrugged and said: ‘They don’t know anything about love’.

I teased Valentina by asking her if she still thought that God didn’t listen to her, as she had said when we first met. She smiled and finished: ‘Not only does he hear me, but I hear him more clearly every day. His voice is very close; it’s in me.’

Just then, the Elder entered the canteen. He smiled when he saw us and sat down at the table with us. We told him about the conversation we were having. The good monk listened without interrupting. At the end, he commented: ‘A transformation that only became possible when anger made you realise the full power of love. The true meaning of shadows is to teach us about the value of light. Our sufferings are like maps that show where the treasure of life is buried. To understand the meaning of each of these maps is to understand the way God talks to us.’

Then he said he had other commitments. He excused himself and left. We watched him walk away with slow but steady steps.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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