The Quest for Perfection

By Paulo Coelho
For The Bali Times

At the beginning of the Christian era, a group of monks decided to retreat to the Sceta monastery in Alexandria. Their stories have survived to this day in a work called Verba Seniorum (The word of the Ancients), and some have already been transcribed in this column. Below are some texts that make us reflect on the quest for what is impossible: perfection.

What is the best path?

When Abbot Anthony was asked whether the path of sacrifice led to heaven, his answer was:

“There are two forms of sacrifice. The first is the man who mortifies the flesh and does penance because he thinks that we are condemned. This man feels guilty and unfit to lead a happy life. In this case he will get nowhere, because God has no part of guilt.

“The second is the man who, even knowing that the world is not as perfect as we all would like it to be, prays, does penance and offers up his time and labor to better the environment around him. In this case, the Divine Presence helps him all the time, and he reaps the results in Heaven.”

Farm work

The young man crossed the desert and finally reached the Sceta monastery. There he asked – and was given permission – to attend one of the abbot’s talks.

That afternoon the abbot spoke about the importance of farm work.

When the talk came to an end, the young man commented to one of the monks:

“That really impressed me. I thought that I was going to hear an illuminated sermon on virtues and sins, but the abbot only spoke about tomatoes, irrigation and things like that. Where I come from, everyone believes that God is mercy: all you need to do is pray.”

The monk smiled and answered:

“Here we believe that God has already done His part; now it’s up to us to continue the process.”

I’m dead hungry

A traveler arrived at the monastery in the middle of a sand storm.

“I’m dead hungry. I need to eat.”

It so happened that on that very day the storm had prevented the monks from replenishing the pantry, and there was absolutely nothing to eat or drink.

Feeling sorry for the traveler, the abbot opened the sanctuary, took out the consecrated hosts and the chalice of wine, and offered these to the stranger.

The other monks were horrified:

“This is a sacrilege!”

“Why a sacrilege?” answered the abbot. “You have heard of David, who ate the bread from the tabernacle when he was hungry. Christ healed on Saturdays whenever it was necessary. All I did was put the spirit of Jesus into action: love and mercy can now do their work.”

© Translated by James Mulholland

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