In preparing yesterday for an address I am giving next month in New Zealand, I was reminded of one of my favourite stories from the ancient wisdom of the desert mystics of the fourth and fifth centuries. The version I have comes from Thomas Merton’s small collection of desert wisdom. It is a humorous story, but when we allow the story to penetrate deep into our being, it carries profound wisdom.
There were two elders living together in a cell, and they had never had so much as one quarrel with one another. One therefore said to the other: Come on, let us have at least one quarrel, like other men. The other said: I don’t know how to start a quarrel. The first said: I will take this brick and place it here between us. Then I will say: It is mine. After that you will say: It is mine. This is what leads to a dispute and a fight.
So then they placed the brick between them, one said: It is mine, and the other replied to the first: I do believe that it is mine. The first once said again: It is not yours, it is mine. So the other answered: Well then if it is yours, take it! Thus they did not manage after all to get into a quarrel. (Merton, Thomas. Wisdom of the Desert, p. 67)
There are so many bricks in life to which we cling so tenaciously. We fight for our little brick because we believe this particular brick defines us. Our identity depends upon owning this brick. I am my brick.
I want to have more bricks than you. I want my brick to look as good, or hopefully even better than your brick. I want a smarter, shinier, more effective brick than anyone else. Somehow I believe that if everyone is impressed with my brick, I will feel better about myself, and find contentment in my life.
But it never works. No matter how hard I try, my brick is never quite good enough. I know it could always be improved. Or I look around and I have to admit that there is still someone with a better brick. I look at my brick again, and when I compare it to your brick mine begins to seem a cheap and shabby thing.
Then one day my brick completely falls apart. I realize it has no power to bring lasting satisfaction into my life.
What do I do when all my bricks have let me down? I rush around trying to get more bricks, or different bricks. I try to buy a bigger brick. I close my eyes and pretend my brick really has not fallen apart. Or I resort to the final desperation of fighting to feel better about my crumbling brick by criticizing every other brick I see.
Perhaps there is another option. Perhaps I could come to see my bricks as simply the devices I have been given to help me get though the daily business of living. Then I could lay down my bricks, surrender them, stop comparing them to other bricks.
But letting go of my bricks is not easy to do. To lay down my bricks requires a little death.
In the desert the monks learned the wisdom of dying before they died. The way of freedom lies along the path of surrender. It is the small self, attached to life being a certain way that must die. When I lay down my needs, wants, desires, and expectations, I begin to discover a deeper reality emerging in my life. The external circumstances of my life begin to loose their hold on me. My bricks no longer control my life.
This death is the way to freedom and contentment. It is the way to rich and deep community.
The desert is the place we discover there are no bricks for which it is worth destroying our fellow human being. The union between human beings is more valuable than all the bricks we might ever feel the need to defend. I am no longer defined by my bricks. I am defined by love. And love always calls me to open my heart to you and stop clinging to the bricks that separate us.