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JAMES BEHRENS: The ability to control our lives is illusory

It was a typical morning. Maybe too typical. I was determined to get some things done that seemed at the time important to me. I sat here at the computer and reached for a few letters on my desk.One letter was from Gaetan, a monk and friend of mine. He lives in Gethsemani, our monastery in Kentucky. I met him many years ago and we exchange letters. He is a wonderful writer. He writes beautifully of simple things, things available to any one of us who take the time or, better, the effort to look at the events of daily life.

I read his letter and want to share some of it with you. Gaetan once lived in our monastery in Lantau, China. The monastery is on an island and not far from Hong Kong. He was on a boat between Hong Kong and another island, Peng Chau.

The boat was making its way to the monastery. Gaetan writes that it was a very old boat and that he was delighted, for it was, as he puts it, "like being out of time." The middle of the boat was open, and there was seating along the side. A young woman was sitting with her little boy, who was about 3 years old. "A beautiful, typical Chinese kid with his hair all sticking up," writes Gaetan.

Gaetan was gazing at the river and when he looked again at the little boy, things had changed. The boy was standing in the open space. Suddenly, he wet his pants and started to cry out loud. His arms hung to his sides as the urine stained his pants and formed a small puddle at his feet. Gaetan writes that he felt do badly for him, he felt like crying himself.

He writes, "I felt so bad for him that I could have cried with him. I understood him completely. I do not know why he did not ask his mother but there is a world of mystery going on inside a little child. It was like he knew he was wrong but at the same time he could not control it and so there was no alternative for him. Se he peed and cried."

His mother was a nice woman. She immediately got up and kissed him while he finished what he could not hold anymore. The she took him aside and held him, speaking lovingly to him -- it was all in Chinese -- but the love and gesture said it all."

The story stunned me. I put the letter down and thought about all the supposed big and important things I had to do. I thought of the littleness of that boy, not just in terms of his size, but his helplessness and his utter dependence on his mother.

We like to think we grow. We like to think that there is a way to realize, once and for all, independence. We make our plans, arrange our schedules, make all the lists of what we do or think we should do.

And then, the day comes when we can no longer control our lives and have to let go. We feel a pressure and then the warmth running down our legs. Things fall apart. We need help.

We realize that we were always like that -- our independence was illusory. The first and last word of human existence is more like a cry, a plea for some good and loving other.

Gaetan writes that the memory is of a ride on a boat that sailed a river 20 years ago. It has stayed with him all these years. He learned wisdom, the ways of God, from a mother and her son. He did not understand a word that was shared between them. He could only see and understand a cry, and a loving response -- the truth of salvation, and how it arrives on a small boat in between islands.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.