There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: "Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. "I do not know how quarrels arise," answered his companion. So the other said to him: "Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say "This is mine." Then you can say "No it is not, it is mine." Then we will be able to have a quarrel." So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: "This is mine." His companion answered him: "This is not so, for it is mine." To this, the first one said: "If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way." And so they were not able to have a quarrel.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – This is another favorite of mine, the story of the two monks unable to have a quarrel. It brings out with light humor the humanity of these men who at times seem so remote from us, so strange and odd in their utterances, so extreme in their way of life.
But these two guys decided that they really should have a quarrel, and so gave it their best shot. And in their utter failure to do it, they show us what all quarrelling is about, all the acrimony and strife and general nastiness of life. “I want it!” “No, I want it!” And so it goes… out come the boxing gloves and we go at it.
Acquisitiveness, possessiveness, self-will, self-seeking—this is the root of so much of the war of the world, the conflicts that tear and twist and ravage the human race. On the individual level, on the family level, on the national and international level, it is covetousness, selfishness, greed that cause us to hate, attack, and kill one another.
I want what I want when I want it how I want it. This is the attitude that sets us on a collision course with our neighbor, especially if he wants what he wants when he wants it how he wants it. Two people set on having their own way and unwilling to give in—‘if it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way’—are going to be locked in a fight to the death.
Now it may seem like I am writing in a veiled and indirect way about the recent conflicts dominating the news—Israel and the Gaza, Ukraine and Russia—and I could rightly be accused of over-simplifying these large and complex struggles. But I am not actually writing about them.
As far as I am concerned, it all comes down to the individual, living next door or in the same house as another individual, and the deep choices we make about our own relationship to the world, to the other, to what we have and what we want to have and what is actually important enough to fight for. Peace in the world begins when I decide that what I want is to love God and my brothers and sisters in Madonna House, and that nothing else in my life even ranks a distant second to that desire.
But it is so easy to fall into all sorts of other desires, if not for physical possessions than for my agenda, my plans, my will to be done on earth and in heaven, too. It is a stubborn stain in our humanity that asserts itself repeatedly to insistently seek our own will in things, to grab that brick and bash the other guy over the head with it if need be.
To live without desires, or rather the only desire being to love, is the key to peace in the world, and this can only happen on an individual level. It is a person who chooses to love, not a group.
But this personal choice to love and surrender all other desires to love is only possible if we have entered the whole path of spiritual purification, asceticism, contemplation. Selfishness is far too deeply engrained in us otherwise. So the desert fathers are not just some nice esoteric study, some odd historical group who lived a very strange life a very long time ago, and maybe there are some monks today who live similarly and are equally odd and esoteric to us.
Rather, the monastic ideal, and the practices of monastic life, while they must be adapted to lay circumstances and exigencies, are utterly vital for the peace of the world, for the reconciliation of enemies, for the healing of ruptures in families, in communities, and yes, ultimately between nations and peoples.
While this is daunting for us, naturally, at the same time it means that we are not powerless in the face of the world and its apparent descent in our days into violence and hatred. Yes, the headlines are really quite grim these days coming out of Eastern Europe, Israel, and Iraq, and it is hard to see how things are going to turn around in a peaceful direction. We can and must pray for peace in the world. But I can also choose today to emulate these two holy monks in the story-take the brick and go in peace, my brother-and strive for detachment, dispossession, indifference towards my own will. And in doing so, I become an agent of peace in the world, part of the solution and not the problem.
Good idea? I think so. How about you?