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 day, a young novice came to the Abbot, in evident great distress. After a quick bow to his superior, he hurtled into a long tirade about the other Brothers and Sisters in the community.
“Forgive me for saying so, Father Abbot, but I feel it’s my duty to point out how so many of the members of our community are not acting as they should! They really are an embarrassment to us!”
His brows knitted in concern, the Abbot asked him to explain.
“Well, there is one Brother who is an absolute slob. I saw him leave his bowl from breakfast in the kitchen sink. When I told him to clean, he simply brushed it off saying that he would get to it shortly. Then there is a Sister who is a mess with her habit. When she comes in directly from the garden for Evening Prayer each day, she’s covered in dirt and sweat. It is most unbecoming for our Order! And then there is another Brother who is far too noisy as he eats, completely disturbing the silence of the morning meals. And then there is another Sister…”
The Abbot cut off the novice with a raised hand and said, “My dear young Brother, it is obvious that you care very much about everyone’s behavior, and are most observant about how this reflects on the community. Perhaps God will be able to help us in this.” And so the Abbot reached up his arms and prayed, “Dear Lord, who sees all that we are and all that we do, help our young brother with the sight necessary and words effective to correct his fellow Brothers and Sisters. Amen.”
“Thank you, Father Abbot!” cried the young novice as he rushed out the door to see how readily God would answer this wonderful prayer.
As he was walking down the hall to his cell, his heels thumping against the hard wood floor, he heard the rustle of beads up ahead. He knew who it was without looking. This Brother was always noisy as he walked with his rosary beads swinging at his side. This always disturbed the silence in the community wherever he went!
Wanting to see if the Abbot’s prayer had been answered, he prepared himself to confront his Brother. As he looked up, he was startled to see that the Brother was holding a mirror in front of his face so that all the young novice could see was his own face. Flustered by this odd behavior, he hurried by without saying a word.
As midday approached, he made his way to the refectory for lunch. Once he was seated with his food, he spoon clinking in his bowl of stew, he was disturbed by the Sister across from him softly blowing on each spoonful of her hot stew. Didn’t she know how selfish and disruptive that was?
Again, hoping his Abbot’s prayer had been answered, he prepared himself to confront his Sister. As he looked up, he was startled yet again to find that the Sister was holding up a mirror in front of her face! Annoyed even more, he rose quickly from the table to leave. In his haste to depart, he accidently left his dirty spoon on the table.
As he reached the kitchen to wash his bowl, he saw the Brother he had mentioned earlier to the Abbot, again leaving his bowl in the sink. Didn’t he know that someone else would have to take care of it?
Desperately hoping his Abbot’s prayer would be answered this time, he prepared himself to confront this Brother. As the Brother turned around, the novice was startled yet again to see his own reflection staring back at him in the mirror that the Brother was holding in front of his face.
This was just too much! Needing time to himself, he stormed outside to walk the ground and try implore God for help. He was so consumed in his own thoughts that he paid little attention to the path, and often tripped over roots and rocks, his habit catching on thorns and briars along the way.
Without realizing how long he had been outside, he heard the bells for Evening Prayer, and rushed back to the Abbey. Just as he made it to the door, he saw the back of the Sister who was coming in from the gardens, her habit dirty and stained as usually. He quickened his step to catch her.
Surely, this time, God would answer the Abbot’s prayer so that he could properly correct his Sister. As he reached out to grab her shoulder and pull her aside, do you know what he saw when she turned around? Sure enough, he was taken aback to find his own face reflecting back at him in the mirror that she was holding.
As he entered the choir for Evening Prayer, his mind was racing. He was so flustered that he was having difficulty focusing on the chants and prayers. And to be sure, the rustling of a Brother here, and the coughing of a Sister there, all of this was distracting from the holy service. With this in mind, he looked up and saw that every member of the community was holding a mirror in front of their face!
This was too much! Why on earth would all his Brothers and Sisters contrive to do something so absurd as this? Unable to continue his prayers, he left his choir stall and fled the chapel. Determined to speak with the Abbot about their behavior, he headed for the Abbot’s cell. As he stood outside the door, waiting for the Abbot to return, he fumed about this offensive behavior. Perhaps they had found out about his conversation with the Abbot, and before he could correct them, they had conspired to make a fool of him. That must be it! Didn’t they realize he was correcting them for their own good?
After the conclusion of Evening Prayer, the Abbot made his way back to his cell and found the young novice still standing vigil outside his door. Seeing his obvious distress, the Abbot asked him what was troubling him so.
“Father Abbot,” he replied, “your prayer did not work! In fact, the other member of our community must have found out about it, because they have all conspired to derail my efforts to correct them!”
“How is that,” asked the perplexed Abbot.
“Surely you saw it! Every time I find someone that needs to be corrected, they’re holding a mirror in front of their face so I can’t talk to them. The whole community were holding mirrors in front of their faces in the middle of Evening Prayer! Even if God does answer your prayer, how can I correct them if they are all behaving like that?”
It did not take long for the Abbot to see what might be going on. Gently, he said, “Brother, I have seen no one with a mirror at all today. All the same, God may have answered our prayer most effectively.”
“What do you mean?” asked the novice.
“When you found someone whose behavior bothered you, and you were certain of someone’s fault and were ready to correct them for it, what exactly was it you saw when you looked at them, ready to correct the fault?”
“Why, I saw myself in the mirror, of course.”
“And what is it then, that God is trying to show you, my young Brother?”
“I don’t know!” cried the novice. In his exasperation, he slumped down onto the floor. The noise of his rosary hitting the floor startled him, sounding so loud in the otherwise silent room. As he hung his head in frustration, he noticed for the first time the dirt on his habit, and the loose threads from where it had snagged on the briars earlier in the day. As his mind tried to retreat from his own embarrassment, he realized how much of a disturbance he must have caused when leaving the choir at Evening Prayer. Unbidden, the rest of the day came flooding back, and his embarrassment threatened to overwhelm him.
“Father,” chocked the novice, trying to hold back obvious tears, “Am I really so bad as I’ve said others are? Am I really no better at all? What can I do?”
Tenderly, he bent down and held the novice’s shaking shoulders in his hands. “All I can offer to you is this one practice, which you must do every day as often as you can: Ask God to forgive you, knowing that God always loves you…”
“But I already do that in confessional,” interrupted the novice.
“Then this is the practice you must take on, and you must work hard at it every day.”
“What practice is that, Father?”
“After you have asked God to forgive you, you must forgive yourself.”
And without another word, the Abbot helped the novice to his feet and sent him back to his cell for the night.
From that day on, the young Brother never felt the need to correct another Brother or Sister, so busy was he finding forgiveness for himself. And after living out his many years in the Abbey, it was said that the community found him in his cell one morning, having passed on in the night, clutching a small mirror to his chest, with the hint of a smile on his lips.