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.
There once was a young novice who had entered into religious life in the Abbey to find peace and an inner experience of God. He had fled to the Abbey in order to escape a very difficult life. Since the outside world was filled with distractions and hardships for him, he had hoped that life in the Abbey would let him leave that trouble behind and so find an easier path for his spiritual formation.
After being taught the basic practices of the contemplative life, he set to work trying to center himself and still his restless spirit. Unfortunately, every time he sat down to silent prayer, his mind would plague him with all the pains and hurts that he had experienced before coming to the Abbey; the very pains and hurts from which he was trying to escape by coming to the Abbey in the first place!
Distressed by his recurring emotions and troubled thoughts, he went to the Abbot to seek help and find out what he was doing wrong.
“Father, Abbot,” he said, “I came to live here at the Abbey in order to leave my troubled life behind. I had hoped that here I could find peace for my soul and be with God. But every time I put myself to the task of silent prayer, I keep revisiting all the troubles of my past. No matter how hard I try to center, I just can’t seem to avoid these thoughts and painful emotions. How can I enjoy the peace of inner stillness if I can’t get around these thoughts and emotions?”
The Abbot laid a sympathetic hand on the novice’s shoulder and led him outside to walk with him through the Abbey grounds. As they walked on in silence, the novice became more and more distraught. Perhaps there’s nothing the Abbot can do for me, he thought. Maybe I’m just not meant for this kind spiritual formation. Maybe I’ll never be able to achieve inner stillness with God.
As the silence wore on, the novice fell farther into his disparaging thoughts. He had become so preoccupied with thoughts of his failure that he almost stumbled over the Abbot who had stopped along the trail. Looking up, he noticed that the Abbot was gazing intently at a brambly bush that spread out in the understory of the forest. Upon closer inspection, the novice saw that it was in fact a blackberry bush. Being late in the season, all the outer berries had been picked clean by the other Brothers and Sisters for the community meals, but buried deep inside behind the sharp briars, there were still plump and juicy blackberries.
The novice hadn’t realized how long they had been walking, preoccupied as he was in his own thoughts, and it only occurred to him then, as his mouth started to water at the sight of the juicy berries, that they must have been walking straight through the lunch hour.
Undoubtedly aware of this, the Abbot asked, “Are you hungry at all? Would you like to have some blackberries to eat?”
“That would be very nice, Father Abbot. But all the blackberries on the outside of the bush have already been picked. I’d have to reach through the briars to get to the ones that are left and they would surely cut my hand.”
“Ah, you’re quite right,” replied the Abbot. And without another word, he started off along the path.
As they walked on in silence, the novice fell again into this own worrisome thoughts. Why isn’t the Abbot talking to me? Maybe he realizes there’s nothing he can do. Maybe I’m just to broken to fix!
On and on these thoughts circled through his head as he walked behind the Abbot. Then, once again, he almost stumbled over the Abbot who had stopped along the trail. When he looked up, he noticed that it was well into the afternoon. He had no idea how long they had been walking now, so preoccupied had he been with his own thoughts and worries. It must have been quite a while, though, because now he was far hungrier than before.
Just as he was about to ask the Abbot if it would be wise to go back to the Abbey for some food, he noticed that they had stopped in front of the very same blackberry bush.
“Are you still hungry?” asked the Abbot. “Would you like some blackberries?”
“Yes, Father Abbot. I’m still very hungry! But the only blackberries left on the bush are all deep inside, and I’m sure to cut my hand on the briars if I reached in.”
“What if you reached in carefully?”
“I’m sure I’d still get cut! Those dense briars are unavoidable.”
“Then I guess you won’t be able to eat,” said the Abbot.
Just then, the novice’s stomach growled loudly. Perhaps the cuts wouldn’t be as bad as the gnawing hunger in his belly. Making up his mind, he knelt down, shut his eyes, and reached slowly into the bush.
Sure enough, even though he was being as careful as possible, he could not avoid the briars. They picked and cut his hand and then his wrist and then his arm as he reached farther in to pluck the juicy berries. He kept his eyes shut tightly, for he was certain that if he looked, he’d see a ragged mess that was left of his arm.
Finally, his hand brushed against the soft flesh of the berries growing deep inside the bush. As he grabbed the berries, he found out that his clinched fist snagged on even more briars as he drew them out. With each stab of pain, he thought about just letting go of the berries and quickly withdrawing his hand. But he knew he’d still get cut, and then he still would be without any food. So, enduring the pain, he kept his fist clinched and slowly drew out the handful of berries. He kept his eyes resolutely shut; not wanting to see the dripping blood that was undoubtedly coating his arms, and thus lose his nerve entirely.
At last, his hand cleared the last of the briars. All he could do was bite his lip, take short, sharp breaths, keep his eyes closed to avoid the gruesome sight, and just endure the burning pain along his arm and hand from the numerous gashes, cuts, and scratches inflicted by the briars. Gradually, though, the pain began to subside, and eventually went away entirely. With the pain gone, he opened his eyes to find that his skin was red and scratched, but hardly torn apart as he had imagined. And there in his hand he discovered some of the largest and juiciest blackberries that he had ever seen.
“Well,” asked the Abbot, “aren’t you hungry?”
Eagerly, the novice popped the largest berry into his mouth and was overjoyed by the sweet, refreshing juice. How delicious they were!
After he had finished the handful of berries, he found that he was still hungry, but not nearly as so. At least these berries had taken the edge off the gnawing feeling in his belly.
“These berries were delicious!” he exclaimed to the Abbot.
“Why didn’t you pick the blackberries the first time we stopped?” the Abbot asked.
“Well, at first, I was afraid of how much the briars would hurt. I was certain that they were going to tear up my hand arm, and the pain would be unbearable.”
“So why did you finally brave the briars?” inquired the Abbot.
“I just got so hungry that I figured the cuts wouldn’t be as bad as the hunger pains I was feeling. And thankfully, as bad as I thought the cuts would certainly be, once I reached in and got the berries, they just turned out to be scratches that eventually stopped hurting.”
“Then how do these briars differ from the thorns inside your heart that are stopping you from reaching within to find that space of peace with God?”
With these words, the novice saw that there was no way to avoid his troubling thoughts and emotions as he sought to find inner stillness. In fact, the very search for stillness would bring him face to face with all his past troubles. But trusting his Abbot’s example, he was determined to meet them head on, and one day, by working through them, find that the phantoms were not as terrible as he thought, and so find that space of peace with God that was waiting inside him.