Brother John was a man with the best of intentions but a terrible temper that made him impossible to live with. He decided to go into the desert and find a monastery where he could come to terms with his affliction. In less than a year the monks found his temper so impossible that he had to leave.They gave him a fine set of pots and plates, a large jug of goat’s milk and enough food for a month. Then they helped him find a cave in which to live as a hermit. At last he thought, he could come to terms with his temper because there was no one there to try him.
It was when he was trying to light the fire that he overturned the jug and lost all his milk. Before he could control himself he picked up the jug and smashed it against the side of the cave. The pots went the next day and the plates the following day!
Brother John cursed and swore but there was no longer anywhere for him to go to hide from the affliction that would have gone with him anyway. At last he had to face in solitude what he’d never faced before. It was there that he finally learnt that the trouble with the world he had run away from was not ‘other people’, as Sartre said, but with himself. If he wanted to live in peace with others he must first find it within himself. St. Catherine of Siena used to say, “The trouble with the world is me!”
It was a truth that she had learnt for herself in blood, sweat and tears in her solitude, not in a desert, but in her own home in what she called ‘the house of self-knowledge’.
It takes a saint to see a truth so clearly that pride and prejudice prevents the rest of us from seeing. The evils of the world that we hear about daily on our radios or see on our television screens are but the outward expressions of the evil that is within us all. Yet, arrogant human beings find it offensive when they are told that the source of the world’s woes can be found within them. They like to think that they have no part in them, that they are out there in a place where they can be dealt with by the expertise and endeavour of Homo Sapiens.
That’s why Schumacher pointed out in his book, ‘Small Is beautiful’, that ‘although people go on clamouring out for solutions, they become angry when they are told that the restoration of society must come from within, not from without.’ Simplistic it may seem to the clumsy and cluttered mind of homo arrogans, but it is nevertheless true. There will never be peace and harmony in our world until there is first peace and harmony in our hearts. All the great mystics have discovered the hard way what Job meant when he said that man’s life on earth is a continual war, a war that has to be waged within. Pope John XXIII’s bedside reading was ‘The Spiritual Combat’ from which he drew his inspiration. This man of peace and compassion only became so through many inner battles that he fought and lost, as he explained in his book Journal of a Soul. It is only after losing battle after battle in spiritual combat that a person finally learns that the ‘war to end all wars’ will never be won without help and strength that is quite beyond our own resources. This was the lesson that St. Paul finally learnt. He actually thanked God for his weakness because it enabled him to realise that without God he couldn’t win a single battle with himself. For St. Paul, even sinfulness can become a steppingstone to sanctity when it forces a person to turn again and again to the only One who can help him.
No politician, no diplomat, did more for peace in her day than did St. Catherine of Siena. Nor will anyone do more for peace in our day, than those who have the courage to go within as she did, and with God’s help fight first within themselves for that which they wish to bring to others.