The other cheek

Deeply annoyed, I went to sit at the end of the huge table where all of us, disciples and monks together, have our meals at the monastery. A little while ago, in the yard, I had had a serious discussion with another young disciple. The Old Man, as we affectionately called the dean of the Order, watched me for a few moments, but left me alone during lunch. After everybody had left in silence, the old monk approached me and invited me for a walk in the garden. Before he asked anything, I vented all my indignation with the colleague who had been very harsh in his criticisms about me. A mother had come to us seeking emotional and spiritual support, due to the insurmountable pain of having lost a child. I suggested she go to the orphanage our brotherhood kept at the small village at the base of the mountain that harbors the monastery, and work there as a volunteer for two weeks; she should come back to talk to us after that. My intention, I immediately explained to the old monk, was for that mother to understand that there are always hardships bigger than ours, and that the orphanage could be a good place for her to deposit the love she had in her heart. To pass on the feelings she had for her departed child to children who had no parents would soothe her pain, give sense to her life, and lighten her steps. Upon her return to talk to us, she would be more receptive to listen to the words that would appease her and explain the Unwritten Laws of the Path. The other disciple, however, reproved me. In his opinion, I had been insensitive in not making myself more available to console the mother at the time she needed it the most, as a good word is powerful enough to alleviate a stinging pain. This was the conflict and the reason we had argued.

I asked if I was wrong. “No”, answered the Old Man. I immediately asked him if he would summon the other disciple for a serious conversation, followed by a scolding and a demand for an apology. “No”, said the monk again. What did he mean? Shouldn’t a mistake be amended? Aren’t we accountable for our actions? I volleyed the Old Man with questions filled with indignation.

The monk looked at me with his beautiful eyes, filled with compassion and framed by skin wrinkled from time and struggles, before saying: “When two people argue, both can be right. In this case, there was no wrong solution, any of the measures could work”. I claimed that there was only one truth. He disagreed: “The truth comes according to the level of awareness of people, which changes in tandem with your sensitivity in terms of the feeling of the world. Much of what you took for granted in the past you may not be sure of today. Truth is unique; however, it’s actually understood in a very gentle way, little by little, at each step you take on the Path. Moreover, we should not take sides in a quarrel. Rather than fostering separation, one must encourage union. Wasn’t that what Francis taught us in his beautiful prayer? It isn’t enough just to know, one must, in fact, experience knowledge. Only then will it become wisdom”.

I said that each one should take a stand on what is right or wrong, so that the world will find its track, at last. The monk replied, filled with patience: “I take a stand whenever the choice is up to me, that means, when it is my time to act on the stage of life, in the decisions that I must make, and not acting like a judge for everything, in which case I will only fuel, through a frivolous or arrogant action, spirits already heated. Believe me, that is how wars are created”.

“Seize the opportunity to turn the other cheek. By the way, the expression ‘whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ has different and beautiful interpretations. My interpretation, and I humbly admit there may be others more complete, is that the expression is, before anything else, a plea to non-violence; a clear guidance for us not to respond in the same tone, not to pay back in someone’s own coin, not to vibrate in synch; it is a refusal to dance in the ball of darkness. It is a lesson of compassion and mercy, it is the clear and simple option for peace inside ourselves, and supporting it with my heart, it will encompass the planet.”

“To turn the other cheek also means to see with the eyes of the other; this means, to look with the eyes of the other, placing yourself in the shoes of the other and seeing things from the other’s point of view and ability of understanding, according to their own experiences and history, filled with social and cultural conditionings. This provides a major learning, by realizing the other is able to see beyond what we have been able to, so far, or, on the other hand, serving as a fine exercise of patience and tolerance to understand the limitations of the other, like the one we had in the past, or with our own shadows. This is a fine, wise way of loving”.

I couldn’t let off on my indignation. I complained with the Old Man that the feeling of being misunderstood or, even worse, of being treated unfairly, ate my guts like a bitter venom, as my attitude towards the mother was filled with my best feelings. I reasoned, once again, that I only wanted to have her prepared emotionally to be able to understand the words that would soothe her heart. The response of the monk was in his usual soft tone: “We must respect the rights of others to their opinion, particularly when they are opposite to ours. Similarly, we should present our ideas in a clear, composed way, with no concerns for applause or approval. We should focus on doing our part the best way we can. Dissenting ideas are normal, and serve as levers to foster learning by forcing us to think; they are like the mirror that shows us what is no longer suitable and should be transformed within ourselves”. He became quiet for a few seconds, and then said: “However, what draws my attention the most is something else”. This remark made me uneasy.

“The opinion of others should not have the power to rob you of your peace. Bear in mind that people have over us only the power we grant them. Therefore, do not grant anything or anyone the power to prevent you from taking flight. If, further down the road, you realize you are wrong, fix the course and make corrections according to the possibilities, as we are accountable for our own actions, and transmute pride and vanity so that these shadows are no longer in the way. If you are right, soar to the heights propelled by the wings of compassion, being assured that everyone, sooner or later, will reach the next station of the Path. Peace is a powerful instrument one learns to refine in the core of the being, and it is critical for you to dance the joyous tune of the Great Symphony of the Universe”.

The monk stood up and asked me to think about the matter. After taking three or four steps towards the door, he turned back and said: “I almost forgot the most important.” He became silent for a few moments, and added with his soft voice. “As soon as you can, shake hands with the one who has aggravated you. This is a good opportunity to experience two of the eight states of bliss, the eight portals of the Path, being peaceful and peacemaker. Think about that”.

On that very night, I went to meet the other apprentice. We spoke until late at night and patched up our differences. Over the course of years, our friendship solidified and we became the best of friends, doing good work together. We both became monks at the Order, and we amuse ourselves recalling episodes like this. From this anecdote, there are two things worthy of note: the first is how, depending on the level of awareness of the parties involved, conflict is still necessary for harmony to be reached, and this is always possible when there is love in the form of tolerance and compassion, in addition to wisdom to evolve and transform. The time will come when conflict will no longer be necessary for understanding. The second was the role played by the dearly missed Old Man as a peacemaker, the higher step of the Path’s portals, a fine lesson provided by the most refined example. After so many years, I close my eyes and see him singing, very softly, Francis’ prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.


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