I’ve recounted this story that happened years ago while retreating for a couple of months at a monastery. I think the message of it is very relevant to all the stuff going on right now and the moods the ‘stuff’ carries with it.
It was my first year on a long retreat. That is pertinent to this story. Prior to this retreat I would only stay a handful of days before the monastery told me I had to leave. This time, I had a room arranged for me through a beloved father and I was going to get my fill.
I arrived at my room and received a key. The monk told me, ‘This is the only key in existence for this room. You cannot lose it.’ I took it, ‘No problem! Losing keys isn’t my thing.’
Losing The Key.
Not a day or two later, I decided I was going to trek into the mountains. The canteen of the monastery was only about 20 metres(~60 feet) from my door. This distance is a straight line – you walk out your door, walk in a straight line, and go into the canteen.
I had been assigned work regularly in the canteen, so it was natural for me to go there to inform someone that I was going to be in the mountains, so as not to worry about me. There were no cell phones in those days (oh, the glory days).
Upon telling my friends that I would be leaving. I realised that I had forgotten my Bible and journaling tools in my room. So I put my hand in my front pocket where the key should be, so that I could go retrieve them. There was but one problem, no key was found in my pocket.
We searched up and down, and retraced the [literally] straight line from the canteen to my room. The key was gone. Just gone. Great, I thought, I’m going to get wrecked.
The monk is not happy.
So, I am now in a panic. Will Abouna hate my guts? Likely. That’s what I was thinking. I enter into a frenzy and wonder what is going to happen. But, I think to myself, but monks are so nice, he’s not going to be upset that I didn’t do the one thing I was supposed to do! He’ll be so nice about it and we’re going to be just fine.
That is not how things went. The monk came to the canteen, because he had made an agreement with Arseny, a young man and friend of mine who worked permanently in the canteen, that he would teach him how to drive. The monks sometimes taught people skills that they could use when they returned to the cities, so that they could find more sources of income.
In comes the monk, we’ll call him Abouna A, and he is smiling. I told him that I lost the key. Abouna stopped smiling. I grin; he frowns. I am in trouble. Abouna A becomes upset, and I become internally upset, because I hate upsetting people, it…upsets me. So much for monks being nice, I think.
It gets worse.
Abouna A was partners with Abouna B in running the canteen. Abouna B did not want Abouna A teaching Arseny to drive that day. He expressed that explicitly to Abouna A. When he saw Abouna A arrive to take Arseny away, he loses it. He does not appear peaceful exteriorly whatsoever.
Abouna A apparently doesn’t care, and orders Arseny into the car…and then me. I sighed. This was not going to be a fun trip, I thought. I was right about that part.
As we are driving, Abouna A decides to make the comment: Listen, I am not here to babysit you, okay? If you need something, just say it. If you want to go somewhere, go, but I cannot be running around after you to try and figure you out. I cried a little. I just decided not to show him so that I wouldn’t get yelled at.
No, it really does get worse.
So, we’re driving around, not having the time of our lives. I can tell Abouna A is annoyed that I’m annoyed, but he’s holding back. Good, I thought, exercise some of that monastic kindness!
We get back to the canteen, and Arseny is greeted by some guy with a smirk on his face. Arseny, you must understand, treated that monastery as his own house, and the canteen like it was his honour. Every penny was accounted for and his faithfulness was beyond reproach.
‘So,’ the man asked, ‘how much did you make in the canteen today?’ Arseny looked at him with confusion. I don’t remember his exact answer, but the man answered for him eventually, ‘How about 3500LE?’ (I don’t remember the exact number) The man continued, ‘Maybe you should take more care with the monastery’s property, instead of treating it lightly. All this cash fell out of your pocket.’
He had cash in his hands, and he wasn’t smiling anymore. Arseny promptly turned some shade of red, and sped off to his room. Abouna B shot Abouna A a look, and stormed off to this cell.
What a beautiful day in the monastery!
Abouna A was quiet for a minute or two, then he began to laugh. He did a monastic facepalm and looked at me and said, ‘This is shoo-shoo.’ I had no idea what this Shoo-Shoo thing was. It turns out it was the nickname for the Shaytan (Satan). They use it to make a point that the devil’s a joke compared to God.
‘Oh.’ I said. Not really sure what exactly I was supposed to do with his insight. I still hated him for rightly hating me.
‘No, but for real, it’s Shoo-Shoo.’ He repeated. ‘Okay, so what?!’ I asked him. ‘Don’t you see, if it’s him, we’re all so stupid. We’ve been playing to his game the whole time. When the devil does this, then we need to flip it on his head!’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked him. ‘Do the opposite of what he wants from you.’ He answered me boldly.
Undoing Damage with More Damage
‘Follow me.’ Abouna A instructed me. We went to my room. Abouna had ordered for a welder and carpenter to come to try and figure out a way to open the door. They failed.
So Abouna hiked up his galabaya (cassock) and he kicked the door down with his legs and feet. I named his muscles Cosman and Maximos. I don’t know why I didn’t go with Damian. We were all laughing hysterically. ‘See, no big deal! You have your room now!’ He laughed.
Then he turned to me and said, ‘Listen, you’re upset. Stop. I didn’t mean to offend or hurt you. All I meant to say to you was the monastery is now your home. Don’t be shy, don’t make us have to try and figure you out. I’m so glad you’re here and I want you to profit, but I just don’t want you to feel tied to me or anyone.’
That was exactly what I wanted, and I found out that he didn’t hate my guts like I thought. I was just being sensitive and he was well, not being sensitive! I was smiling ear-to-ear.
The next thing that I witnessed was beautiful. Abouna B had returned to the canteen. Abouna A took me with him and boldly stormed into the canteen, making a prostration at the feet of Abouna B.
‘I have sinned!’ He declared. ‘You asked me as a brother not to take Arseny to drive, but I did anyway. I have sinned, and I beg you to forgive me.’ Abouna B, in a total panic, started prostrating himself (aka making a metanoia) to Abouna A, and said, ‘No, no! I am the one who has sinned! It’s me who sinned, my father! It’s me! I shouldn’t have insisted on my position, forgive me!’
Then they started kissing each others’ hands and crying and making up. I dabbed my eyes with tissues and thought, this is the stuff you read about in the books.
After they were done being monks, there was one more thing that had to be addressed: Arseny. Together we walked toward his room, and we knocked on his door. But, Arseny was not willing to answer. He ignored the knocks altogether, because sometimes we just like to sulk.
When knocking was not enough to solve the issue, they forced the door open. Each monk sat next to either side of Arseny. They tried conversing with him but it was not working.
So, Abouna B started talking to him using baby voice. Yes, I mean that voice you use when you’re talking to a baby and say things like, “Yakhty komeela ya 3assala inty! (My beautiful sister you honey, you!) He used baby voice and repeatedly asked him, ‘Are you upset, Arseny?’ He ignored their questions.
That is when Abouna B decided to take the large bottle of water from in front of them to use in novel ways. While using his baby voice, he said, ‘Don’t be sad, Arseny!‘ Then he poured it all over Arseny’s head. Why? No idea. It worked though.
At this point, not even Arseny could hold back the laughter. Everyone was laughing hysterically. Nobody had any idea why Abouna B decided water was the solution, but it was actually hilarious.
We all went back to the canteen, and we together cooked a meal, and we gave thanks through the sharing of a common meal. We dipped our bread in the same plate, rejoicing in the Lord and in one another.
Abouna A smiled at me, ‘Welcome, ya ma3alem!’ That’s a colloquial expression somewhat akin to, ‘welcome aboard, captain’. Real warfare does not always look how you think it is.
Don’t let the devil get to you during these hard times. He wants us to flip out, to fight and to point fingers at one another. When we pontificate about why we are right or yell about how hurt we are, we do exactly what Shoo-Shoo wants. Don’t let him.
Everyone has opinions about what the right thing to do or not do is right now. I’m not a relativist. I’m not pretending there’s no right or wrong. What I am saying is that by using this time to be more divisive, we lose out on the blessings of having a different kind of Eucharist.
If we had not reconciled that night, my entire life would have been different. I had decided to leave the monastery when I first felt slighted. The monastery singly changed the course of my entire life, and I would have lost it over a room key.
Let us look at our situations and flip it on his head. God is good. Let us love one another, let us share the bread, laugh hysterically, and give thanks.