Many centuries ago, there was an Abbot who was head of a monastery in Northern Ireland. He was renowned for his compassion, insight, and great inner silence. As Abbot, his charge was to lead the monks of his monastery and teach them the spiritual life that had been passed down through the monastic communities. He was a teacher, and this is one lesson he taught.
One morning, while the Abbot was walking through the monastery gardens, he came across a young novice who was feverously counting the knots on his prayer rope, muttering a repetitious prayer under his breath. The novice was so consumed in his prayers that he did not hear the Abbot approach. Not wishing to disturb the novice at this work, the Abbot stood silently by and watched, adding his own prayers to the novice’s as he waited.
Finally, the novice reached the end of his prayer rope. The Abbot watched his shoulders sag and then suddenly the novice threw the prayer rope to the ground and cradled his head in his hands. When the Abbot approached and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, the novice looked around quickly, startled to find that he was not alone.
“What’s wrong,” asked the Abbot.
“Father Abbot, I don’t know why my prayerful practices aren’t working. I’m trying to find that inner peace of God, but I still feel such conflicts in my heart. I thought being here was exactly what I wanted to do, but I still long to be out in the world enjoying the luxuries that other people do. I want to pray continuously, and enjoy my prayers with God, but I get distracted by other thoughts and desires. I want to be at peace in community, but there are brothers and sisters that do things which annoy me. No matter how much I pray, I can’t get rid of all this tension and find inner peace. Why is this not working?”
The Abbot reached out a hand and helped the young novice to his feet. “Walk with me,” he said, and led the way through the garden. In due time, they came to labyrinth where members of the community walked in prayer to be still with God. Instead of walking into the labyrinth, however, the Abbot walked up to one of the many trees surrounding it. Deftly, he removed his cincture rope, picked up two small stones from the ground, and tied each to a separate end. The novice watched attentively as the Abbot draped the rope over a low branch and left the stones dangling in midair by his cincture rope.
Pointing to the stones, he explained, “One of these represents your being with God, and the other your being in the world.” He then reached out his hand and, with his finger, plucked the rope which softly twanged. “You see there is tension in the rope, tension between the two? As this stone hangs in the air, it shows we are lifting up our place with God. Now, my young Brother, you wish to be free of tension and so be at peace with God? How will you do it?”
After looking over the curious model the Abbot had created, the young novice first reached out his hand and supported the stone representing God. But as he lifted it, the other stone dropped, still keeping the rope taught. When he released it, the stones shifted back into place beside one another.
Next, he thought the easiest way to release the tension would be to simply cut the rope and remove the stone representing the world. But as he thought this through, he realized that the other stone would fall as well. In the end, he realized that he could not get rid of one without upsetting or losing the other entirely. Seeing the situation clearly, he related this to the Abbot.
“Very good, my young Brother. You do indeed see this situation clearly for what it is. And with that in mind, what does this tell you about being “at peace?”
“Being at peace is not the absence of tension, but rather comes from inner stillness that allows for tensions to be balanced. “
“What does this teach you about creation?”
“All of creation is in tension, balancing opposing forces. In Genesis, God separated Light from Dark, allowing space for each. God created both Man and Woman, but the serpent disrupted the balance of the two, thus spiraling humanity away from God. In ourselves, we have our spirit and Holy Spirit; both are interconnected.”
“What does this teach you about prayer?”
“Prayer is not achieved by dismissing our worldly responsibilities, but rather by making our worldly concerns the very act of prayer itself. Prayer is not outside of this world but in the midst of it. By making the secular sacred, both are achieved.”
“What does this teach you about peace within yourself?”
“Peace between my worldly desire and my Godly desire is a balance to the point that they become the same, but that does not mean one or the other disappears entirely.”
“What does this teach you about Christian community?”
“In community, we have our needs and the needs of our Brothers and Sisters. Peace in community is achieved when we are open and honest about our needs so we can assess and balance our needs with those of others for the sake of the community. To find peace, we must acknowledge tension rather than avoiding conflict so that balance can be achieved.”