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 of his monks, a young novice with great energy and strong opinions, came to him complaining about the lack of uniformity in the way that the brothers and sisters of the monastery prayed on their own. Some would pray the rosary, another would pray the Prayer of the Heart, and still others would pray the Divine Office in their cells with prayers that varying according to each monk’s individual preference.
“Father Abbot,” said the young novice, “how can we all be brothers and sisters in this monastery if we are all praying to God differently on our own? You should make everyone pray the same way so that we are ‘all one’ as Jesus commanded.”
Knowing the novice’s heart, the Abbot led the young man down to the spring out in the abbey grounds the flowed out of one of the grassy hills. So as to refresh themselves during the day and make drinking the water easier, the monks had fashioned a stone basin under the spring that would collect the water and allow multiple monks to drink at one time.
As the Abbot walked through the kitchens, he beckoned to the monk who was working the ovens, and invited him to come and drink water from the spring with them, for he saw that the monk was hot and tired from preparing and cooking the food. On the way to the spring, the Abbot beckoned to one of the monks working in the garden and invited him to come and drink as well, for he saw that the monk was hot and tired from his labors in the field.
The Abbot stood back and let the three brothers drink. The young novice, proud of himself for thinking ahead, used a cup that he had picked up from the kitchen to dip into the spring and drink. The monk from the kitchen took a ladle that he had and dipped it into the water to drink. The monk from the field simply cupped his hands to raise the cool water to his mouth. The young novice drank in small, quiet sips, as he knew who befit a monk. The monk from the kitchen, gulped the water from the ladle to quench his thirst. The monk from the gardens slurped loudly as he drank the water from his hands.
The novice was appalled by their lack of poise and the noise they made as they drank. After another sip from his cup, he could stand it no more and dumped out his water in frustration. Turning to the Abbot he said, “Father Abbot, it is impossible for me to drink from here with these two brothers drinking the water the way they are! I cannot drink this water if they do not drink like me.”
Gently, the Abbot asked the novice, “Are they drinking all the water so that you cannot draw any with your cup?”
“Of course not, Father Abbot,” he replied.
“Are these two brothers preventing you from getting to the spring, then, so that you cannot dip your cup in the water?”
“Of course not, Father Abbot. There is plenty of room here for us all to get water.”
“Then how is it,” continued the Abbot, “if there is plenty of water for all, and plenty of room for everyone to get to the water, that these two brothers are actually stopping you from drinking the water if you in fact really want to drink it?”
In that moment, the young novice saw that it was pride, a need for control, and judgment of others that comes from fear and personal insecurity which stopped him from drinking the water. The other two monks had done nothing to stop him at all. Freed of these sins, he dipped his cup into the basin, and drank deeply, enjoying the sweet water.
Thereafter, the Abbot was pleased to see that the novice prayed on his own, never again criticizing the prayers of other brothers and sisters, and even eventually was seen praying in new ways that he had observed from others.