image by Robson Freitas, via morgueFile
Joe felt in no way competent to be at a death watch for a saint. All around him were monks, save for one lone nun, the saint’s sister. The monks chanted, prayer-beads clinking off minutes like a timer counting down towards the final bell. The nun provided palliative care, the futility of her nursing never creasing her brow with worry or sorrow. All were serene, except for Joe.
He had been at the monastery for only a month, a chance-traveled destination in a lifetime of pointless journeys to find enlightenment, or at least a better understanding of something. When he came to the saint’s monastery, he was downtrodden with all of it; the traveling, the seeking, the constant finding that he and others always came up short. He was beginning to suspect that there was no enlightenment, no peace, no understanding to be had, only futile travels from one illusory light to the next.
The saint wasn’t dying when Joe first arrived. Every day, the saint would hold court in the monastery’s beautiful garden, sitting in state cross-legged on his pillow in a wooden pavilion. Every path through the beds eventually led to the pavilion. All day, the monks tended the vegetables and flowers while they prayed. The seekers, the travelers, and the penitents wove through monks and paths like bees seeking honey.
Joe decided that he would rather weed. The monks lent him heavy work gloves, which he disdained, and a big straw hat, which he gratefully sat upon his balding pate. He weeded for days until, to his surprise, the saint called for him.
“What brings you to our garden?” The saint asked. His hands counted beads, a labor he stilled at Joe’s approach.
“I don’t even know,” Joe replied. “Maybe I want to know what I should do to be worthy.”
“Worthy of what?” The saint’s clear eyes were bored and amused as he looked over Joe.
“Worthy of. . . hell, I don’t know. Worthy of taking up space on this planet.”
“Ah.” The saint’s expression cleared. “Just breathe.”
With that, Joe thanked the saint and went back to weeding, feeling no more or less enlightened than before. But thereafter, whenever anyone asked him what he was doing at the monastery, be it monk or traveler, he always replied: “Breathing.” As the days went on, he found the act of breathing, really breathing, filled him with a peace he had never dreamed possible.
The saint called each of the monks to his bedside, whispered in their ears, and then sent them forth. One by one they were banished as Joe waited. A few of the monks gave him a sidelong glance as they departed, but most went with eyes meekly on the floor. Finally, there were none left but Joe and the nun, who withdrew to a far corner as the saint gestured Joe forward.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” the saint asked with a plaintive sigh, his old fingers were strong and cold on Joe’s wrist, but his focus was already beyond the room.
“Is there anything you regret?” Joe asked, then hung his head. He often blurted out most trite things at the worst times. He was a naif, a fool, never knowing what the question really was, never-mind the answer.
“Yes.” The old saints eyes twinkled with mischief. “I regret,” he paused, his gaze resting on the nun for a moment, “I regret not breathing more!” With a final wheeze, he expired.
Later that same day, Joe was astonished and appalled to learn that the saint had elected him the new head of the monastery. The new saint.
“Why me?” he asked the nun as she brought him a cup of cold, clear water. He sat in the pavilion, his seat not yet comfortable on the brand new cushion that the monks had brought him. Out in the garden, travelers and penitents were already working their way through, seeking answers he feared didn’t exist.
She smiled. “He said it was because you know how to breathe.”