The Rabbi’s Gift

Old monastery Pictures, Images and Photos

There is a story, perhaps a myth.  Typical of mythic stories, it has many versions.  Also typical, the source of the version I am about to tell is obscure.  I cannot remember whether I heard it or read it, or where or when.  Furthermore, I do not even know the distortions I myself have made in it.  All I know for certain is that this version came to me with a title.  It is called “The Rabbi’s Gift”.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times.  Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the Abbot and four others, all over 70 in age.  Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage.  Through their many years of familiarity  they could always sense when the Rabbi was in his hermitage.  “The Rabbi is in the woods, the Rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other.  As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the Abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the Rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot at his hut.  But when the Abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed.  “The spirit has gone out  of the people.  It is the same in my town.  Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.”  So the old Abbot and the old Rabbi wept together.  Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.  The time came when the Abbot had to leave.  They embraced each other.  “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the Abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here.  Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give.  The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the Abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the Rabbi say?”

“He couldn’t help,” the Abbot answered.  “We just wept and read the Torah together.  The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us.  I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words.  The Messiah is one of us?  Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case, which one?  Do you suppose he meant the Abbot?  Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot.  He has been our leader for more than a generation.  On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas.  Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.  Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred!  Elred gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right.  Often very right.  May be the Rabbi did mean Brother Elred.  But surely not Brother Philip.  Philip is so passive, a real nobody.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him.  He just magically appears by your side.  May be Philip is the Messiah.  Of course the Rabbi didn’t mean me.  He  couldn’t possibly have meant me.  I’m just an ordinary person.  Yet supposing he did?  Suppose I am the Messiah?  O God, not me.  I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that one among them might be the Messiah.  And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.  As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place.  There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it.  Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray.  They began to bring their friends to show them this special place.  And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks.  After a while one asked if he could join them.  Then another.  And another.  So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the Rabbi’s gift, a vibrant centre of light and spirituality in the realm.

— M.Scott Peck


[PHOTO by italiancajun on]


About Paul Wharton

I am a cradle Catholic, a native West Virginian, and a priest since April 24, 1982. Spiritual Direction has made a tremendous difference in my life and I encourage people to try it out. My motto is "Progress not perfection." I am grateful that God has done for me what I could not do for myself.
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5 Responses to The Rabbi’s Gift

  1. sharonandsal says:

    Great story!

  2. Kelly Rose says:

    Sweet. Is that monastery taking in any more monks? I want to be a monk: ) Cause it sure sounds pretty and tranquil, a monastery deep in the forest with walking paths and a life of meditation and service to god. And if it has a river or creek nearby with rapids or a waterfall, who could possibly want more?

  3. Fabulous story, thanks for posting it to remind us that we may not always recognize and appreciate the value and presence of God within each person. The story also teaches that the old Abbot, on behalf of his monastery, his monks, and their faith went looking for a way to save what they had – because it was so valuable – yet, the members of his community had lost sight of what was most valuable to them as community: personal respect, a loving attitude, and appreciation for each individual person good traits even while acknowledging (silently) their weaknesses.

    • Paul Wharton says:

      The story also illustrates why having a spiritual director is so important. One can help us see something we are missing or to try something that might help us make what could be a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

      Be sure to check out this Sunday’s story and discussion.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Claire T. Lampert says:

    This story certainly offered a painting in my mind as well as my soul.

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