The Unhappy Monk

The young monk was troubled.

He knew that he was meant to be a monk from a very young age, and yet, life at the monastery was not satisfying anymore. He noticed his own anger at silly things. His impatience with himself and others, his petulance, his fear, his sadness- all seemed so overwhelming. He had trouble remembering why he was here. He resolved to see the Abbot.

The Abbott had been a monk for over sixty years, and had a reputation for great kindness and great wisdom. He saw the troubled monk at once, listening with patience as the brother poured out his heart.

“And so, I fear , Father Abbot, that I am not a very good monk,” the troubled brother concluded. “What should I do?”

The Abbot took a slow, deep breath. “Is there any one here, one of our brothers, that you find it very difficult to love?” he asked.

The brother, slightly stunned by the question, thought for a moment. He thought of Brother Lee. Ever since he had been at the monastery, Brother Lee had galled him. He didn’t know whether it was real or imagined, but he always thought Brother Lee was mocking, uncouth and patronizing. And he smelled funny.

“Yes, Father Abbot, there is one such brother.”

“Then, my son, you are assigned to be his servant. You are to share work and meals and prayers next to him for the next ten days- but he is not to know that this is an assignment from me. You and I are the only ones who will know. Then in ten days, return and we will talk.” The Abbot then left the room.

The young brother walked away, noticing some anger in his heart, and realizing that he was shaking. Was it anger? Was it fear? Was it excitement? “I don’t know, ” he thought. “I can’t just leave,” although part of him wanted to. “I can’t just ignore the Abbot’s order,” although, again, part of him wanted to. “I really want to be a good monk, but I’m not sure how I can do this.”

As he rounded the corner, there was Brother Lee, struggling, carrying two large pails full of water. Immediately, he said “Brother, let me help you!” The older monk looked surprised, but the pails were heavy and he allowed the young brother to take a pail. “We’re going to the herb garden,” Brother Lee said. “Some of the more tender herbs need a little extra water this morning.” The younger monk followed, carefully carrying his pail of water to the herb garden. “That’s fine,” Brother Lee said. “Just set it there. I can handle this now.” Setting down the pail, the young monk looked around. He wasn’t allowed in the herb garden normally, that was the province of Brother Lee, but since the Abbot’s order….

It was beautiful. The herbs were in neat rows and obviously carefully tended. Little signs carved in wood named each row of growing thing for the uninitiated, and some of the larger plants and shrubs as well. It was very quiet and peaceful. And the smell! The lemongrass, the feverfew, the basil, echinacea, chives, thyme, rosemary all made life inside the monastery seem suddenly very rich.

“I said thank you.” It was Brother Lee’s voice. “You can go now.”

“Oh, sorry, certainly. It’s just…Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. Can’t guarantee an answer,” Brother Lee said. His face and voice seemed to squint a bit.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to see the garden and now that I’m here, it seems a shame to leave so quickly. I have no other chores this morning, may I help you with the garden?”

Brother Lee looked at him more intently. Then suddenly, he straightened up and said, “Well, could use a bit of help. My back isn’t what it used to be. Why don’t you start by bringing a couple more pails of water from the stream. then I’ll show you how to tend the rows.”

The young monk emptied the pails into a large tub by the potting bench and ran to the stream, carrying the two pails back easily.

“Where should I put these, brother?”

“Bring one of the pails over here, and take that ladle off the potting bench and bring it with you.”

The young monk did as he was told and Brother Lee showed him how simply dumping water on some of the plants would create damage to the plant and erosion to the soil. Especially with the younger, more sensitive plants, a gentle hand was needed. “We gently use the ladle, just until their roots grow strong, you know,” Brother Lee said. The afternoon passed quickly, and before he knew it, the young monk heard the bell for prayer. “You seem to have a knack for this, young brother. I will ask Father Abbot if you could assist me in the garden- my last helper found me disagreeable and is now cleaning out the stables. Hmph. Well, would that please you?”

“Yes it would!” The afternoon had flown. The work was interesting, and so was Brother Lee. Over the next week, he learned that Brother Lee had been a soldier before entering the monastery. He had seen lots of human tragedy. “I didn’t want to see any more murder and revenge. I wanted a place of quiet and peace. A place to cultivate compassion and patience- I’m still learning,” he said with a sly grin. “But I hope my contribution will balance my prior violent actions.” Brother Lee was fascinating- he had a lot of stories, and he knew so many teachings. The young brother found himself excited to see him in the mornings and learn from him in the garden each day. He loved the garden, and the plants, and he loved Brother Lee. Like a real brother. He didn’t even notice that there was anything strange about the way he smelled, because he smelled of it, too. Compost. Food for the life of the garden. He now loved that smell.

One day, the Abbot’s messenger arrived to summon the young monk from the garden. “The Abbot wishes to speak with you,” he said. Had it really been ten days already? The young monk shook his robe, washed his hands, and followed the messenger to the Abbot’s room.

“My brother,” the Abbot said, “It is now ten days since you came to me with your troubling problem. How are things going since we last spoke?”

“Oh, Father Abbot, it’s wonderful! Brother Lee and I are getting the gardens ready for the late spring plantings, and it feels so good to see the earth and the flowers and growing things every day and hear Brother Lee’s stories and listen to his wisdom. He’s really been through a lot, and it’s amazing that he could be such a good monk after being part of so much violence and pain. I’m learning a lot, and I really feel as if I belong here now.”

“But I thought you didn’t like Brother Lee. At least the assignment was to work with one you had difficulty with.” Were his eyes smiling?

The young monk paused. “That’s true, but I was wrong. I couldn’t have disliked Brother Lee, I didn’t know him.”

“Ah,” said the Abbot. His eyes were twinkling! “I see. So, now that you are actually following the Master, let’s see what we can do about making you a good and happy monk.”

~D Gregory Smith

One comment on “The Unhappy Monk

  1. George says:

    RSB, chs 5 & 7


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