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.
A monk came to the Abbot one day and was greatly distressed. “When I first came to the monastery,” the monk explained, “you introduced me to many types of prayer. By praying the Divine Office, the Prayer of the Heart, and so many other practices, my soul quickly grew in God! It was wonderful how quickly my prayer life grew and fulfilled me. But now, I’m praying the same way and no longer feel any growth. What is wrong with me?”
The Abbot looked sympathetically at his monk and offered this advice: “My Brother, I cannot help you, but I there is someone who can. He lives high up in one of the mountains in the far north of our emerald isle. It is a long journey through rough and varied terrain, but if you can make it there, then he will most certainly be able to help you.”
“How do I get there,” asked the monk.
“Simply go north till you find the tallest peak, and you will find him there. He has lived as a hermit in that mountain cave for many years and has great wisdom to offer. To start you on your way,” said the Abbot, reaching into a cabinet, “you will need these.” He pulled from the cabinet a pair of shoes and handed them to the eager monk. The shoes were simple and light, and would allow the monk to move quickly along the road to the north. So, with a blessing, a prayer, and the new shoes, the Abbot sent the monk on his way to find the hermit.
After several days of walking, the ground grew soft and wet as he reached the marsh lands before the great northern lake. As he trudged through the marsh, his shoes became water logged and started to chafe his feet badly. Finally, unable to stand the discomfort, he sat down and pulled off the shoes to let his feet dry a little. As he sat, an old man came upon him and saw him massaging his feet.
“You won’t get far in the marsh with those shoes,” said the old man. “Here, take these instead,” and he pulled from this bag a pair of waxed leather boots.
Thanking the old man, the monk slipped on the boots and found that the marshy waters didn’t seep through and his feet remained dry and comfortable. When he looked up again, the old man was gone.
With the new boots, the monk made his way through the marsh until he finally came to the great northern lake. He could only barely see the shore on the other side and knew that he couldn’t swim across. On the far shore, he saw a line of trees, and rising above them, a high mountain. In despair, he sat on the beach, lamenting that he would not be able to find the hermit. Just then, a local fisherman came up the shore and found the monk sitting and staring despondently out over the water. Quick to see his problem, the fisherman climbed through the low scrub on the shore and pulled out a small boat, complete with a single oar. Without a word, he dragged it over to the monk, left it beside him, and continued on his way.
Elated, the monk climbed into the boat and set out across the great lake. For a day and night, he paddled across the water till he reached the distant shore. Knowing how helpful the boat had been, he picked up and carried it along his back and he started into the thick forest that now stood before him. The forest grew on rocky soil that gradually sloped upwards towards the mountain.
It was rough going for the monk as the boat kept knocking against the trees and the waxed boots did little to protect his feet from the sharp rocks. After a while, the monk heard footsteps coming up behind him and they were quickly gaining. He turned and found an old huntsman trekking up the rocky slope. When he reached the monk, he asked if he might use his boat because he needed to go across the lake. He even offered to trade shoes with the monk and give him his tough leather boots that had heavy metal soles.
Gratefully, the monk pulled off his boots in exchange for a pair that was better suited for the rocky terrain. Happy for the trade, the huntsman started down towards the lake, leaving the monk to continue on his way up the mountain.
His new shoes made the rocky hike far easier, and in no time at all he was high up the mountain. The farther he climbed, the colder it became until he started seeing snow and ice covering the rocky soil. The farther up he climbed, the thicker the snow became. His heavy metal soled shoes sunk through the snow, forcing him to drag his tired legs through the drifts.
Worn down by the thick snow, the monk stopped to rest. As he sat, shivering in the snow, a mountain herder came upon him. Taking pity on the monk, he gave him an extra pair of broad soled snow shoes and one of his thick woolen cloaks. The monk gave thanks for the kind gifts, and with his new shoes strapped to his feet, started up the mountain again.
As the sun eventually set and the sky grew dark, he began to worry that he would miss the hermits cave. But just above, he saw the faint flickering of fire light coming out of the darkness. With renewed vigor, he hiked up the mountain towards the light and discovered the low entrance to a cave. Thankful for the shelter, he crawled in and found a large roaring fire in the center with a man just visible sitting on the other side.
Exhausted, he sat by the fire, his snowshoe clad feet stretched out in front of him, and basked in the warmth of the fire. Gradually, the fire started to die down, and the monk wanted to know if the man on the other side was indeed the hermit for whom he had been looking.
“Excuse me,” started the monk, “but I have come a long way in search of a hermit that my abbot said could help me with my spiritual growth. Are you the hermit of whom he spoke?”
The man replied, “can’t you tell by looking at me?”
The monk tried to look past his cumbersome shoes that had helped him get up the mountain, but could not see around them. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you clearly,” he said.
“Then you should remove what’s getting in your way.”
Taking the advice, the monk removed the snowshoes and looked across the fire. To his astonishment, there was no one there and he found that he was completely alone in the cave. He saw that the fire was dying, so he added some wood that he found around the cave, and sat by it, continuing to enjoy the warmth. The monk sat for some time. Disturbed and disappointed that he had not found the hermit that would help him in his spiritual growth. But the longer he sat, silently staring into the fire, the greater his peace became.
And to this day, there is a young monk who lives as a hermit in a cave, high up on the tallest peak. He sits there, in quiet contemplation, warming his bare feet in front of a well kept fire.