By Monica Olsen
Egyptian Desert, 4th Century Anno Domini
Maurice walked in the sand behind the other monks, two of which were whispering to each other right in front of him. They had been told to walk silently.
Peace and holiness were supposed to fill a monastery. When he became a novice, that’s what he expected to find, but this morning, more than six monks were late for matins. Last night when he was sweeping, he had seen an older monk steal dried dates out of the kitchen.
Maurice was only fourteen, but he was more mature than most of the older monks around him. Shaking his head, he shuffled onward towards the meeting. Speaking of breaking the rules, that’s why all their prayers and work today were disrupted – some impious monk had done something wrong and now they had to hold a special meeting to judge him and kick him out of the monastery. What a waste of time!
Why couldn’t these men do as they were told?!
Maurice had never been to the Meeting Hall. Usually, he slept and prayed and read the Scriptures in his small hut and did his kitchen duty tending the outdoor fire pits and ovens on the northern side of the grounds. Besides that, most of his time was spent in church services, and most announcements to the whole group were made afterwards. He had never really even noticed the Meeting Hall before today.
It was really just an open-air pavilion protected from the hot African sun by the monastery’s high southern wall. Columns made of dried mud bricks held up a flat roof over the rectangular space, empty except for a small wooden bench. As the monks approached the pavilion, they each kissed the abbot’s hand and then filed into both sides of the space, keeping a center aisle clear.
As a handful of men walked to the front, Maurice squinted his eyes at them. He recognized the abbot and his assistant, but the other three elders were strangers. He figured they were hermits, called in to be a part of the proceedings. The abbot nodded, such a small and solemn slip of his head that Maurice almost didn’t catch it, except that it resulted in one more man walking down the aisle. The guilty monk, with head drooping and hood covering most of his face, plodded to the front and stood near the abbot.
The room was full, but the abbot made no move to begin. Instead, he leaned over to whisper to his assistant – and then the five elders sat down on the rough wooden bench.
Hmph! At least someone here knew what was going on! And they had a bench. Everyone else remained standing. At least the floor was nice – Maurice would take the cool, smooth, marble any day over the endless sand.
He looked around, not sure what he was looking for. Standing near the outer edge, he peered out to note the position of the sun, wondering if they were still waiting for the 6th hour. Nope. The sun was high at its mid-arc, which is when they were supposed to begin. He fidgeted his feet for a while, rubbing his toes inside his sandals, trying to pray but instead looking to see what all the other monks were doing. After a while, he looked at the sun again. Now it was traveling down its arc. What were they waiting for?!
The abbot rose, eyes fixed on the monastery gate, and dozens of monks all turned their heads to look. On tip-toe, Maurice strained to see.
Trudging slowly from the gate, a tall, dark, muscular monk in a brown-hooded robe bent under the weight of an enormous basket he carried on his back. His pace was slow, but steady, even purposeful. Maurice wondered what was in the basket – fish, perhaps, for the evening meal? A gift for the abbot? Scrolls from Alexandria? The library here was pretty poor, and they could use more scrolls. Maurice’s mind raced with possibilities.
When the monk’s face came into view, lines of concern ran across his forehead. His eyes looked like they might start crying. Maurice realized there were no scrolls or fish in the basket but couldn’t figure out what was going on. He glanced at the monk on trial standing in the front. Was this new monk with the basket accused of a crime as well? Interesting – a double trial!
Whispers flitted across the room:
“Ha! I knew he’d have to come.”
“Moses… you know, the Ethiopian robber.”
“Never should have let him join the monastery.”
An unusual sound quieted the whispers. It was gentle, shushing, tumbling. It was sand trickling in a stream out of the enormous basket onto the marble floor. As the massive monk walked up the center aisle, he left a line of sand behind him. He stopped at the front, still holding the basket on his shoulder. The sand collected into a pyramid on the floor.
Maurice felt a strange tension behind his eyes and in his gut. This monk made him uncomfortable.
Moses bowed to his abbot. “Father, bless.”
The abbot’s voice was sharp. “The blessing of the Lord, Moses. It is good to see you finally decided to come when your abbot called.”
The massive monk said nothing in reply or defense.
The abbot mistakenly took that as agreement and raised his voice to the whole gathering. “We are ready to proceed with the judgment of Brother Bessarion. It has been well-documented by the official scribes that—”
“Abba.” The voice that had interrupted was firm and strong.
“Excuse me?” The abbot’s voice grew higher in pitch and more tense.
“Abba.” Moses, on the other hand, remained completely calm. Calm but firm.
“Who do you think you are to interrupt?!” The abbot’s face turned red as he stared at the desert-dwelling monk.
“Exactly. You have come to the important truth. I am nothing.”
Heaving a deep breath through his nose while his mouth scrunched up, the abbot sputtered, “What do you mean?”
Moses continued slowly, loud enough for the whole room to hear, but never out of control. “I – who am nothing – have been asked to come take part in judging my brother. I – whose own sins I can’t even see – come to examine the sins of my brother. My many sins are hidden from me, like the sand that falls behind my back. Yet I who am blind would presume to be able to see my brother’s sins.”
The whole room was silent, except for the shushing of the falling sand.
Maurice’s gut was feeling more and more queasy. Judging from the looks on the other monks’ faces, no one was feeling particularly well.
The abbot had taken a step back and was looking at his own hands clasped in front of him. He stood there for a long time until something melted within him, and instead of hard stone his whole face and body seemed more like sand. When he spoke, it was a whisper. “You are right, Moses. Forgive me. You are right.”
Moses’ response was so soft Maurice could barely hear it. “God forgives and I forgive. May I return to the desert now?”
The abbot’s pale face nodded solemnly. Moses turned around with the heavy basket and plowed back towards the gate. The sand trailed behind him.
“Brothers, this meeting is dismissed.” The abbot looked down at Bessario. “Meet me in my cell.”
As the rest of the brothers filed out, Maurice remained in place, staring at the line of sand running down the center of the room. The abbot noticed him, whispered something to his assistant, and walked out.
When everyone was gone except for Maurice, he walked over to the line of sand, bent down, and picked some up, letting it run back down through his fingers.
“You there, Novice.” It was the assistant.
Maurice stood up. “Yes, Father.”
He handed him a broom. “The abbot asks you to clean up the sand in here.”
The assistant left, and Maurice stood alone.
Alone with his sand, he thanked God for helping him to see it.
About the Author
Monica Olsen has been writing and teaching for over 20 years. She started by helping her students write and perform speeches and skits, and worked up to helping them write and produce their own full-length play, Dickins vs Disney. In addition to fiction, she is also published in the Ruston Daily Leader and the St. Nicholas Navigator. Her favorite storytelling involves finding wonderful old stories and recrafting them to offer as a gift to modern readers. Read more at her blog, Orthodox Mothers Digest.