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 who was fairly new to the Religious life, came to him and explained that during their private prayers, he could find silence if he focused long enough, but when he would then leave to take care of his duties on the monastery grounds, farming, feeding the animals, and so on, he found his mind racing and his heart chattering all over again. “How can I be still in my heart and yet still be active in the world?”
“Follow,” answered the Abbot, and he led the young novice down to the river that passed through the glen not far from their cloister. With a swift push, he knocked the young man into the cold waters. The river flowed quickly and with great force. It took the monk several moments before he righted himself and was able to keep his head above the churning waters.
“Now,” said the Abbot, loud enough to be heard over the chatter of the river, “I want you to be still right there in the river. Do not let the force of the river rule you.”
Confused, the monk went to work, trying to follow the Abbot’s direction. He fought against the current as best he could, trying to be still and stay stationary in that spot where his teacher had pushed him in. First, he began to swim, constantly fighting the current upstream. When he felt certain that he was remaining in that spot, he shouted to the Abbot between strokes, “Father, I am now still in the river and not letting the force of it control me!”
“No,” replied the Abbot. “You are not yet still in the river.”
Frustrated, the novice tried another approach. As the river bottom was strewn with rocks, he wedged his feet between them and anchored himself in that spot, though he had to fight hard to stay standing with his head above water. “There,” he sputtered, “I am still in the river and it does not control me.”
“No,” replied the Abbot. “You are not yet completely still in the river. Again, I tell you, be still right there in the river; do not let its force rule you.”
Even more frustrated, the monk fought against the current, desperately trying to keep his place while keeping his head above water. His legs were rigid, but quickly growing tired as was the rest of his body. Finally, unable to keep up the swimming or keep his feet locked any longer, he let go of this fight and started drifting in the river. Exhausted, he relaxed and floated on the water’s surface. He watched the clouds drift and the trees dip their branches into the passing water for some time, unable to move a muscle, exhausted and sore as he was.
After a while, he heard his teacher calling to him from the bank. He had been following his student’s progress down the river the entire time. “Now, my son, you have at last done as I instructed!”
And sure enough, though the river still moved him and moved all about him, he was finally still. Taking the lesson to heart, he climbed out of the river and went off to attend to his chores. And from there on after, by finding his center in his times of silent prayer, he was able to keep his heart still while being directed about by the flow of his daily chores and responsibilities.