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, complaining that he was having difficulty sifting through his thoughts when we sat down for silent prayer.
“There are times when I realize I need to be alone with God in silence,” the novice explained, “when my life is troubled or my emotions are in turmoil. So that’s when I try to sit and find peace with God, so God will take away my worries. But when I do, I find myself spending all my time trying to chase off my many thoughts and feelings.”
“Are you finding time for silence every day?” asked the Abbot.
“Well, no. Just when I feel that I need to be centered with God.”
Recognizing the novice’s shortcoming, the Abbot told him a story about a remarkable young boy that he had encountered many years ago on the eastern cost of Ireland.
“Once there was a boy,” began the Abbot, “who lived near the beach. Each day he would go to the water’s edge and play in the waves. He delighted in the feel of the surf as it tugged at his bare feet on the shore. Still, as much as the distraction of the waves enticed him, what he loved most was to play in the sand.
“He would dig for hours on end; building sandcastles that he knew would last no more than a day. For as evening fell, he would always have to return home, beckoned by his mother’s call.
“One day, while digging on the beach, he decided to see how far down the sand went. How remarkable is the idealistic curiosity of a young person! So he started to dig deeper and deeper into the sand. This was difficult for him the farther down he went, as the sand would constantly shift, falling back to cover where he had just dug. Bit by bit, though, the hole grew deeper, widening ever more as he went.
“His hands began to tire, and the sand slipped through his fingers as he tried to push it to the side. But even then, as the sand fell back, he kept digging. Bit by bit, the hole grew ever deeper.
“Then, suddenly, his finger tips raked across a hard smooth surface. He didn’t know what it was, but it certainly wasn’t more sand! ‘This is it,’ he thought. ‘I’ve found the bottom of the sand!’
“As he cleared away the sand, he found, much to his surprise, a door buried there in the sand. With delight and anxious curiosity, he pulled open the door. And do you know what he found there? He found the greatest treasure imaginable. Carefully, he let himself into the room and stayed there with his new found treasure. He felt at peace with it, calm, and loved. No words he knew could really describe it, so he never tried.
“His peace was eventually broken when his mother called for him. It sounded like she was calling from a great distance, be still he knew he had to return. Leaving the treasure there in the room, he pulled himself out through the door which fell shut behind him. With the treasure secure within, he ran quickly back to answer the terse scolding of his mother.
“The next day, he went back to the beach. His feet led him quickly to the spot where he knew to find the door, and behind the door his treasure! But the sight that met him made him stop short at the edge of the hole. He looked down and where he knew he should have seen a door was nothing more than a floor of sand. The hole was shallower that it had been. The sand he had so diligently dug away had been washed back into the hole during the night!
“With the memory of his treasure driving him forward, the memory that had stayed with him and comforted him through the night, he began to dig again, pushing the sand to the side, delving deeper into the hole.
“And there it was. The door was still there, buried beneath the sand. He pried back the door. The little sand remaining fell away. He was met inside by the presence of his treasure. Again, as before, it soothed and calmed him.
“Each night he headed home, but each day he would return, dig away the sand that washed back, and stay there in the room with his treasure. There he felt peace like no other, and though its memory kept him when he was away, it was only a tiny piece of what he felt in the room.
“One day, however, he could not return, nor could he return the day after. Finally, after a week, he came back to the spot where he had dug away the sand. All that remained of the great hole he had dug was a small impression in the smooth beach. And so he dug as he had the first day. For hours he clawed at the shifting sand, until finally he found the door again. With great relief, he slipped inside and rested in the presence of his treasure. But he could not enjoy it as he had before, for his fatigue from digging so much distracted him. Thereafter, it was only when he came each day that he could enjoy the treasure fully. If he stayed away for longer periods, he would find the room nonetheless when he finally returned, but the experience with the treasure was never as full.
“The room was always there with the treasure, his greatest treasure, always waiting inside.”
After a few pensive moments, the young novice bowed his head in silent thanks and retreated to his cell. It was said that thereafter, for the remainder of his time in the Abbey, the Brother could always be found throughout the Abbey sitting in silent, still prayer. Every chance he could find, between chores, between the daily prayers, he would find a space to sit and be still so that the clutter around his heart was always kept cleared away, and that the space for God within him was always available in just a moment’s notice.