The Boy on the Mountain


Ned Abenroth

12/6/20234 min read

man jumping while open arms
man jumping while open arms

Once when preparing a homily, a teaching from the desert fathers kept coming up inside me, which seemed to want to be put into a story. Here is the story...

Once upon a time a young man (full of anger) announced he was taking a vow of silence and would live alone in a cave that overlooked the town, dedicating himself to prayer. He wanted to be a Holy Man.

All the townfolk were so impressed, and they brought him food, and noticed when they brought it to him he was always in quiet prayer. As years passed the legend grew of the holy monk in the cave: Folk would say, “You know I think his robes are getting whiter with time." Another said, "When I took up food last week, he hadn’t touched the food from the previous week, I think he has added fasting to his practice!”

And their hearts ached with gratitude, for though they could never be holy like him, at least they had the honor of taking care of him, and could sleep under the opening of his cave.

And their chests swelled with pride, for his cave overlooked their town and not those idiots in the next village.

One day a wise old woman came through the town and hearing of this monk she took pity on both him and on all the townspeople and sought to help them. Early in the morning she went up to cave and said, “Young brother, how is it that you have become so holy?”

The young man opened one eye but said nothing.

At noon she went back this time asking him for advice on quieting the mind, and the young man furrowed his brow and shifted in his seat but again said nothing.

This went on three times a day, morning, noon, and night for six days, the old woman always with a new question, and each time the monk’s body grew more agitated but he kept the silence!

Until the seventh morning...

On that day he saw her coming, and when she drew close, he erupted at her yelling, “DAMN it woman, would you leave me alone I’m trying to PRAY!”

Then he froze, astonished at the anger that had so easily poured out from within him. Over his face a cloud of sorrow came as he realized that all those years of sitting alone had still not healed him, had still not made him a "holy man." And then tears came as he looked up into the old woman’s smiling eyes and he knew he was truly seen by her for who and what he was, and in those eyes he experienced nothing but love and grace and kindness. And she took his hand and they walked arm and arm back down to the village.

As one of the desert fathers said, “If you see a young man climbing toward heaven by his own will, grab his foot and pull him down, for it will be for his own good.”


Just as we create scapegoats for projecting our own brokenness, trauma, and sin onto an outer object, making us feel better in the process, so too we are prone to do the same thing with heros. Our own glory and beauty is as unsettling to us as our brokenness, so gladly we project it onto a golden boy, heroine, pastor, leader, or messianic figure, and some poor soul naively accepts the golden projections, with his ego fully in control. Thus, a semi-stable dysfunctional system is born in the village...until the elder arrives in town!

She is wise enough to know that simply telling the townsfolk that they are essentially worshiping an idol won't be recieved, nor will telling them that they are just as holy as the man they esteem! Both will get her run out of town. Information rarely transforms and is usually rejected if it doesn't confirm our existing biases. Never directly tell a religious zealot they’re doing it wrong--it won’t turn out very well! Whenever there is oppositional energy being used in working with fundamentalism of any kind, whether conservative or liberal, the oppositional energy only strengthens that which it opposes.

The wise woman knew that to bless this young one, and indeed to bring wholeness to the entire village, she had to draw on the wisdom archetypal in the "woman of the woods," preistess, or magician to help the young man see what he couldn’t see on his own.

Thus the elder honors the very thing the young zealot wants so desperately to be. Even though she sees his hubris and could name it, she works with his desire, not his blindness. She blesses him not with insight or knowledge, but both with questions and with a three-times a day relationship that subverted his small boxes and eventually brought him into a broader web of relationships and health.

Sometimes a blessing must have enough craftiness built in, so it can penetrate deep enough to make a difference. An elder knows how to be shrewd. Their blessings aren't all flowers and positivity, they sometimes sneak up on us, and over time invite us into wholeness. They call us to live into our true identity, which is always more and less than who we think we are. In other words, the blessing of an elder forces us to hold all of ourselves, our beauty and our depravity, simultaneously, without projecting any of it out onto others. The way of transformation, is to hold onto both, remaining suspended in between these two polarities, until a spaciousness is carved into us that large enough to include both.