A young man knocked on the gate of a monastery and told the abbot that he was disgusted with his way of life. He was very dissolute and couldn’t find anything worth his passion. Could he enter the monastery? “Surely,” said the abbot, “there is something you have dabbled with in life, at least?” The young man thought a while and said, “Well, I played chess once or twice.”
The abbot called for one of the elders of the monastery, a most saintly man, and said, “I want you to play chess with this young man. It will be a serious game because this is the young man’s only chance to change his life. Here are the conditions: if you lose, I will cut off your head. If he loses, I will cut off his head. Now begin.”
At first the young man was nervous and made all sorts of errors, then he began to think of losing his life and started to concentrate. It soon became apparent that he was a better chess player and would beat the old monk. But when he looked across the chessboard and saw the kind face of the old monk he thought, “Why should he die instead of me? He has led a good life and helped many people. I have wasted my days.” So the young man began to purposely make wrong moves and prepared to die.
Suddenly, the abbot picked up his sword and swung it at the chessboard, cutting it in two. “Enough,” he shouted. Looking at the young man, he said, “You have learned the two things necessary to be a monk. In playing as if your life depended on it, you learned concentration. And in reflecting on the fate of the old monk, you learned compassion. These two things—concentration and compassion—are all that’s necessary for the spiritual life. Welcome.
The teachings of ancient monastics still have much to offer us today.
What do you think of the monk’s assessment of the two most crucial characteristics for a monastic?
Are there any other traits you would list as equally or more crucial?
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Monks in Our Midst: writings by monks from the 3rd to the 21st centuries.