The top of the world

I filled a cup with coffee in the mess hall and went to the library of the monastery. It was late afternoon and I was longing for some reading and reflection. There I saw the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, seated in a comfortable armchair with his gaze entertained by the mountains that could be seen through the huge windows. He greeted me with a sincere smile. When he saw me lost among the shelves with a variety of good titles, from Yogananda to Fernando Pessoa, from Chico Xavier to Laozi, touring between Spinoza and Jung, the monk whispered: “Do as Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. It is said that he would always open the Bible randomly whenever he wanted a text to meditate about. As there is no such thing as chance, he always found the words he needed. I sat with the Scriptures in my hand, and the page I opened to was of a passage that had always bothered me since the first time I had read it. It is the one in which master Jesus states that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I read and re-read the entire chapter. Not satisfied, I asked the Old Man if money precluded illumination. He looked at me as if to a child, and said with a soft voice: “Of course not. Money is a wonderful tool, capable of sowing good fruits, as long as it is properly used.” I argued that that was not what was written.

The monk did not lose his patience and added: “When we read the Bible, we must bear in mind three important aspects: the historical background in which the facts unfolded, as it was written some two thousand years ago, and even though it is still modern, mankind was at a different stage; the issue of translation, as some words have different meanings and the one that makes the most sense may not be the one used; finally, it is important to consider that these texts were written not for some people, but for all. Therefore, in order to be properly understood, invaluable subjectivity is needed to reach different levels of awareness. The literal meaning will always lead to the shallowest interpretation.”

“Money is a matter of extreme importance. Every day, billions of people on the planet need to eat, dress, and have decent shelter for a meaningful life. To ignore this is to deny this world and all the learning it contains. No wonder the economy is in the headlines of papers, it affects the survival of each one of us. The problem gets worse because money is still considered the measure of personal success for most people, a motive for reverence and applause, as if portraying a life filled with light, happiness and inner peace. Today, money can buy prestige, wishes and admiration. Just imagine that two thousand years ago people could even buy human beings, and subject them to slavery!” He made a brief pause and continued: “It was believed, at that time, that God chose His favorite children from the fortune they could amass. To date, I still find people who think in a similar way: ‘if so-and-so made money, it is because they were blessed’. However, the fact is that, oftentimes, having a lot of money ends up being a really tough test, very difficult to overcome, as it tends to divert the walker from the sunny side of the road, because of the huge temptations and privileges it provides. This hardship reflects the actual sense of the master’s message.” He furrowed his brow and went further: “Sooner or later everyone will cross the narrow door of virtues, but it will require a lot of effort. Experiencing wealth provides the appropriate lessons, as poverty provides others. We all need both, which forces us to make many stops during the great journey.

I interrupted him to say that there is a strong culture of seeing financial success as being on top of the world. There are many shows and magazines that focus on the glamorous lives of millionaires: mansions, yachts, paradisiacal islands, designer clothes, parties inaccessible for simple mortals, and what the blind ego wishes for the most, the applause of empty fame. A wealthy boaster attracts more audience for the mere fact of being richer and more extravagant than another, simpler person, like a physician who, instead of relaxing during well-deserved vacations, goes to a forgotten corner of the planet to help destitute refugees. And no one speaks out, I vented. The monk nodded in agreement, and said with composure: “Yes, this is true, and this is very good.”

Good? What do you mean? Outraged, I said I had not understood. The Old Man smiled, and was didactic in his explanation: “This reveals our current degree of enchantment. Do you realize that this way of living makes a fog of illusion that distances us from the truth? To live with this situation every day is like taking the soul to the gym every day to exercise the clarity of gaze and refine the choices.” He winked, and added, in a roguish way: “If you train a lazy soul every day, in a few months it will be able to complete a marathon of light without showing tiredness.”

He became silent for a moment, and then asked me: “What is the meaning of your life?” I had just finished reading a wonderful book by Krishnamurti in which this issue was addressed in depth, and I did not think twice before saying that the primary goal I had in life was spiritual evolution. The monk asked me what I understood by evolution. I said that we evolved as we increased our awareness and expanded our capacity to love. The eyes of the Old Man smiled, and he said: “That is correct.” He paused again to set his ideas straight, and continued: “However, today our spirits dwell in a physical body that has material needs. Understanding the balance between material and spiritual prosperity is an extremely important stage of learning which we are at. We do have a physical body, but when we are capable of aligning will and need, balance individual feelings with the world’s and harmonize ego and soul the being is complete. This makes all virtues blossom in the person, and together this is called Light. The current stage we are at is to overcome the ego’s layers of interest to get closer to the soul’s core values, without renouncing the requirements of the physical body. This is part of every one’s liberation process. To that end, one must understand that for the material aspect, what suffices is enough; for the spiritual part, infinity is the limit. Comfort is good, and should not be mistaken as being superfluous. Less is more when one compares the unshakable force of humility and simplicity against the fugacious glitter of ostentation and the fragility of pride and vanity.” I interrupted him to add that evolving was too complicated. He smiled and said: “To transform old shapes, outdated ideas, obsolete ways of being and living requires love, wisdom and courage. It is not easy to evolve, but this does not have to mean suffering. If there is pain or if it becomes a burden, this means that something is wrong, because evolution entails lightness and healing. The less I need the larger my wings will be, and they are indispensable to fly over the dark valleys of existence. All the rest is a golden jail without bars.”

“Each one is their own heir, and the only asset one can take to the next station is an aware mind and a pure heart. Moral, intellectual and sentimental accomplishments, together, are the ticket to go on the endless journey”.

“Whether rich or poor, what prevents evolution is having money as the driving force that propels you, and all privileges obtained or desired become the cogwheel that hampers movement towards the achievement of noble personal virtues, life’s true immaterial wealth.”

“Money can be an instrument of the shadows or of the light. The decision on how it will be used is personal.”

“Finally, money is a fantastic tool that allows the sowing of flowers in each gesture of solidarity, and the weaving of opportunities for you and others. Wealth can either be the dagger of power and oppression, the glasses of vanity, the costume of pride and the bricks to build walls that separate people or become the seed of love and mercy, the humble pie one eats when he has erred, the cloak of justice and the bricks to build bridges that make hearts close. Every day each one makes their own choices and reaffirms it on the following day.”

We remained some time I cannot quantify without saying a word. The monk broke the silence when he pointed with his chin to the mountains we saw through the window and said: “Each one chooses the mountain they are going to climb, this is the top of the personal world. There, they will find plenitude and peace, or not. If you have not yet found them, it is because either you have yet to reach the summit or you chose the wrong mountain to climb.”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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