The other cheek, once again

The library of the monastery is very charming. A huge variety of publications in an environment of silence and comfort, in addition to the spectacular view of the mountains provided by large windows were a stimulating invitation to reflection. There we would often find the Old Man, as we affectionately called oldest monk of the Order, by early evening, seated in an armchair, his gaze lost between letters and landscape. I recall this one time, still in my early days there, when I approached him to ask for a list of books he recommended, so that I could go deeper in my studies. He looked at me with kindness and said: “You can select any book; the important thing is that you start reading. Little by little your interests will direct you to readings according to your needs.” I argued that the explanation was flawed, I could not let chance randomly guide me in my studies. The monk arched his lips in a mild smile and said: “Chance does not exist. What is important is that you are entirely in each page you read, and that you like it enough not to give up the reading. In some odd way, all paths lead to the destination.” I refused that answer, and asked him that, if, hypothetically, he could read a single book in his entire life, which one would it be. He was quick and objective in his answer: “The Sermon on the Mount.”

I replied that that is not exactly a book, but a small text, no more than five pages long, and could be read in a few minutes. The Old Man tried to explain: “The entire wisdom of life consists in ‘treating the other like I want to be treated’, as the teacher summarized. However, few can live according to this simple sentence.” I wanted to know what else was there in the Sermon of the Mount that pleased him so much. He said: “In it you will find the road to plentitude and will build a home of peace within you, if you can understand its comprehensiveness and live according to those words. All the good books are just different readings of portions of this masterpiece. Nothing of what you must read is left out of this text; nothing of what you must be is out of you.”

He paused briefly and added: “I have been reading it every day for years, now. And I always discover something new.” I told him I had already read that text, and even though I had found it interesting, I had not been much more impressed than that. The monk shrugged his shoulders and went back to his reading. That did it for me. I immediately sat in a corner of the library to read the lines so strongly praised by the monk. Within an hour, I had read the text several times. I interrupted the Old Man once again to talk about the part that said ‘But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’. I said that that was such a surreal situation that the statement was nonsensical. Furthermore, no one was a punching bag, and that was an exhortation to cowardice. The Old Man closed the book he was entertaining himself with and turned to me. His eyes overflowed compassion. “This is not what the text advises,” he said. “You must go deep into the details to read between the lines. That is the only way to decode its beautiful content.”

I refuted. I argued that if the wisdom it contained were for the good of humankind, why was the truth it conveyed not written, originally, in a clear, straightforward way. The monk answered, very patiently: “The text is simple, yet deep. Bear in mind that the words are spoken to last over time and to operate transformations in numberless souls in different evolutionary stages. Hence the interpretations are personal, according to the precise expansion of each one’s awareness. This is why the text should always be revisited, as the words are alive, and their meaning changes according to the transformation of the reader.” He paused briefly and then continued: “I think I could write a book only from my thoughts reflecting about this tiny fraction you mentioned of this precious text. By the way, I can tell you that many novels and films were made with the particular theme of the ‘other cheek’, its variations and different commentaries. However, only a few writers and filmmakers realized the original source of the idea.”

I had become irritated with all that digression, so I asked why all the understanding of that simple verse perceived by the monk had been denied to me. There was sarcasm in my question. The Old Man realized this and smiled. His eyes, framed by wrinkles, had seen a lot and would not allow the light of life be wasted. He said with tremendous patience: “Of the many aspects, I will address only a few that seem to be more relevant for this moment.”

He made a brief pause and continued: “The first is not to fight evil with evil. This only nourishes the forces of darkness that dwell in both sides, strengthening the shadows and justifying evil-doers. Whenever you speak, think or act by dense, heavy passions, you will be fostering the shadows that exist within you and outside.”

“How can someone complain of evil if they also practice it? We have to change this experience if we wish different results from what we have obtained so far. You should not condone evil and the evil-doer, they should be halted. But the way to do it will make all the difference. A shadow is not capable of illuminating another. Remember what the master said in another passage of the Sermon of the Mount: ´You are the light of the world’. Therefore, let it shine to illuminate the steps of all people. Offer your other cheek, the cheek of light.”

“Another valuable interpretation we can infer from this excerpt is that ‘turning the other cheek’ also means to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and see the situation and the world with the pains, the looks and, particularly, the limitations of this person. A happy person does not deliberately practice evil. Aggressiveness is the output of all those who are yet to find peace. All violence stems from lack of control rooted in agony, unbalance and suffering. It does not justify any act of insanity or crime. Of course not. In truth, however, in a subconscious way, he who practices evil is desperate with himself, he is asking for help. Hence, by turning the other cheek, we allow compassion to take the place of hatred in our hearts, changing the understanding, the reaction and the solution we will give the case. We can always choose between justice and revenge. The difference between them is the amount of love each decision has. Revenge aims at punishment; true justice is concerned with evolution.” He looked me deep in the eyes and said with kindness: “In another passage of the Sermon, He teaches that ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.’ It is essential to find beauty in all things and people, either from the lessons hidden in the conflicts or from a measure to gauge how far we are able to go.”

“In addition, we cannot leave aside a most important teaching contained in that small sentence that advises to turn the other cheek: non-violence. To embrace this behavior as a lifestyle only the brave can do. Every aggression is a typical reaction of those who are afraid, are insecure and use the attack as a defense mechanism. Violence, whatever the form (physical, verbal or in thought), is sided with the darkness, where its shadows become strong enough to remove the shine of their own light. When we react with our worse, we only feed the shadows. How can we complain of violence if we somehow practice it, even in retribution with less intensity? Let’s not be deceptive. It is essential to understand that peace, as all other achievements, stems from a choice we make. A choice by a person is capable to affect and transform humankind, little by little. Being a peaceful person is elegant, useful and necessary.” He blinked his eye in a roguish way and mocked: “To be peaceful is always in fashion.” He paused briefly and concluded: “Do you recall an excerpt of the Sermon of the Mount in which the Master says that more important than going to mass and pray is to look for the people we have problems with and try to solve them? This is such a beautiful prayer. Love and wisdom cannot be inert, we must move them so they fulfill their purposes. Do you realize that instead of regretting the disagreements and demanding perfection from others, we should seek them to offer our best? How can one do that without turning the other cheek?” He became silent for a few seconds and added: “The cheek of Light.”

We remained quite some time without uttering a word. The monk’s gaze seemed lost beyond the mountains. I broke the silence to tell him it wasn’t easy to follow those pieces of advice. The Old Man turned his face to me: “No one said it was easy, only necessary. Knowing where they want to reach motivates the wanderer, directs their choices, and reveals the Path. This part no one can do for the other; it precedes the wings, which is the transmutation of the being. Then, you share by planting flowers for those who come after, and get permission to move on.”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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