The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again " they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"
"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
(Author unknown) Found in M. Scott Peck's The Different drum and elsewhere
One day, a countryman knocked hard on a monastery door. When the monk tending the gates opened up, he was given a magnificent bunch of grapes.
"Brother, these are the finest grapes my vineyard has produced. I’ve come to offer them as a gift."
"Thank you! I will take them to the Abbot immediately, he will be delighted with this offering."
"No", responded the countryman, "I brought them for you. For whenever I knock on the door, it is you opens it. When I needed help because my crop was destroyed by drought, you gave me a piece of bread and a cup of wine every day." The monk slightly bowed his head, and the countryman went on his way.
The monk held the cluster of grapes and spent the entire morning admiring it. In reflection, he decided to gift the grapes to the Abbot, for it was the Abbot who always encouraged him with words of wisdom.
The Abbot was very pleased with the grapes, and admired their beauty for some time, taking in the color and the shapes. He then recalled that there was a sick brother in the monastery, and thought, “I’ll give him the grapes. Who knows, they may bring him some joy and healing.” And that is what he did.
The sick monk was overjoyed, and thanked the Abbot for his generosity. He too was taken by the beauty of the grapes, and saw in them a magnificent work of art, with patterns of repeated themes and slightly variegated colors. He reflected: “The cook has looked after me for so long, feeding me only the best meals. I’m sure he will enjoy these.”
The cook was amazed at the beauty of the grapes. He carefully arranged them in a large platter alongside other fruit for the evening meal, and while admiring them, he realized, "These grapes are perfect, so perfect that no one would appreciate them more than the sexton." Many at the monastery considered him a holy man, a mystic, and he would best value this marvel of nature.
But the sexton, in turn, gave the grapes as a gift to the youngest novice, that he might understand that the work of G!d is in the smallest details of creation.
And when the novice received them, he quietly recalled the first time he came to the monastery, hoping to be among a community of people who knew how to value the wonders of life. He pictured the person who had opened the gates for him.
And so, just before nightfall, he took the grapes to the monk at the gate.
"Eat and enjoy them", he said. You spend most of your time alone here, these grapes are most deservedly yours.
The monk humbly bowed his head and accepted the grapes, as he understood that the gift had always been truly meant for him. He relished each of the grapes, before falling into a pleasant sleep.
Online Cohort #12
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January 3 and 10
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January 14 and 21
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Mark Novak is co-founder of The MultiFaith Storytelling Institute