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ON FAITH: Don’t despair! Push back against life’s hardships

An ancient story from the Desert Fathers of the early church tells of a time long ago and a place far from here where a large monastery was home to many monks. One of the monks was a weak and sickly young man whose physical wellbeing seemed to be slowly deteriorating, though he was very attentive to his health and tried remedy after remedy.

Finally, unable to determine the cause of his poor condition, and feeling despondent about his future, the young monk paid a visit to the abbot. The abbot listened thoughtfully to the young monk as he nervously explained his situation, and then the abbot responded. He rose and walked to his window, motioning the young monk to follow. The abbot pointed out the window and said to the young monk, “Do you see the large boulder, there at the edge of the field?” “Yes, father,” the young man replied. “Good,” said the abbot, “here is what I want you to do. Go push that rock as hard as you can and let’s see what happens.”

The next day, the sickly young man got up early and did just what the abbot had told him to do. He pushed on the rock as hard as he could. He took a break about midday, had some lunch, and then went back to pushing the boulder. The next day he was back at it. And the day after that he returned to the boulder to try again. Every day he pushed a little longer. The days became weeks, and the weeks turned to months, as the young monk faithfully pushed against the rock.

But after months of pushing, the rock had not budged one inch. Deeply discouraged, and fearing that no one could help him if even the abbot’s advice had proven worthless, the young monk went to the chapel and wept in frustration. When the abbot entered the chapel he asked the young man why he was so sad. “Because, father, you know how sick and weak I am. You told me to push the big boulder in the field, and that gave me hope. But after months of effort, that old rock is right where it was when I started.”

“Ah,” the abbot replied, “but I never told you to move the rock – I simply told you to push against it. Go look at yourself in the mirror.” The young monk stepped in front of the mirror and he was amazed. He saw a fitter and more muscular image than he had ever seen in the mirror. Suddenly he understood the abbot’s plan had never been to change the position of the rock, but to change him.

As the New Year brings us its challenges, some may feel to us like hopeless causes, like immoveable boulders that will never respond to our efforts to dislodge them and move them out of our way. But perhaps our determination and our steady effort will accomplish something after all. It may change us, make us stronger, surer, more capable for the next challenge, and the next.

Do you see a boulder or two in your path? Don’t succumb to despair, just keep pushing! You may be surprised at the result.

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