The Greatest Lesson

by The Cowl Editor on May 3, 2018


A mountain
Photo courtesy of

by David Martineau ’18


High atop the windswept peak of a nameless mountain, a young man dressed in heavy furs pulled himself up onto a jagged ledge and rose unsteadily to his feet. Clearing snow and frost from his eyes, he blinked against the driving wind towards the entrance of the cave that yawned before him. A wave of disbelief and vindication surged through him at what he had done, keeping his frostbitten limbs warm enough to press on. He had traveled many miles, crossing hills and valleys and rivers, all to find this place. This legendary cavern was said to be the dwelling place of a great hermit, a master monk who, supposedly, knew the secrets that all men wished to know.

Beyond the entrance to the cave, the howling storm outside seemed to fade into nonexistence, all sound of it driven away by the oppressive quiet of the cavern’s walls of stone. Cupping his hands before his mouth to warm them with his breath, the young man surveyed the interior of the cave with a quick glance. It was completely dark, except for a small point of flickering light that emanated from a single candle, the only object in the cavern that was man-made. Seated behind the candle, his face obscured by a hooded robe, was a man of indeterminate age. Despite the solemnity of his surroundings, the young man felt himself smile. He approached the monk with solemn steps, kneeling before the candle and waiting to be addressed.

To his surprise, the monk said nothing. His shadowed face was silent as the minutes dragged on. When the cold was beginning to threaten the young man with madness, he finally broke the decorum of the moment and said, “Great Master…I have been searching for you.”

The monk lifted his hooded eyes with a surprisingly ungraceful jerk, and then he said, “Oh…hello there. You seem to have caught me while I was asleep.”

The young man felt his confusion and astonishment increase. This was hardly how he had expected his journey of enlightenment to begin, with a grueling hike and a sleeping monk. Nevertheless, he pressed on. “They say you are the master who knows the greatest secrets of the universe,” he said.

“They? Who’s they?” the monk asked. “Is it that farmer from the village—what was his name? You shouldn’t listen to him. He once tried to sell me a bucket of apples for three times their average price.”

The young man shook his head. “What? I’m not talking about any farmer. I’m talking about the greatest mystics and scholars in the world. They all say that you are the wisest monk who ever lived, that you have discovered the mystery of life. I came here because I want you to teach me!”

The monk tilted his head slightly. “And why would you want to do that?”

“What do you mean, why?” the young man sputtered, now getting frustrated. “Don’t you think that I’d like to know the meaning of life?”

The monk shrugged. “I don’t know. Is it really that important to you?”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Yes! It’s very important to me!”


For the first time since he had begun the conversation, the young man found himself forced to pause. He had never really considered why he had gone on the journey of self-discovery that had led him here, to what was supposed to be the wisest man on Earth. His life was not much different than anyone else he had known back home. All of his friends were just like him—newly-graduated, thrust into the large world outside their narrow perspectives with just enough preparation to inform them of how hopelessly unprepared they were, and utterly uncertain of what was to happen in the future.

The thought of that happening to him had been enough to make him flee from it to join missionary groups, charitable organizations, and anything else  that could forestall the inevitable burden of reality that threatened to crush him, even now. Turning back to the monk, he said, “I don’t know. I guess…I guess I just want to know that there’s a reason for it all.”

The monk chortled quietly. “And you had to come all the way up here to realize that?”

“What do you mean?”

The monk leaned forward, and the young man—for just an instant—caught the barest outlines of a face that was like every other face he had ever known. “Son,” the monk said, “there’s a reason for everything that exists, for everything that you do. The reason is what you make of it all. Life isn’t about finding the truth. It’s about looking for it.”

The young man couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

“So…that’s it?” he asked. “All of that questioning, wondering what’s right and wrong? I did it all just to find out that the meaning of life is not to know the meaning of life?”

The monk smiled. “I know…annoying, isn’t it?”

The young man grimaced angrily. “It’s more than annoying!” he burst out. “It’s infuriating!”

“It will be,” the monk said. “For a while. But then you’ll see that it’s actually freeing. The meaning is always out of reach, so you have to make your own while you’re here. It’s not about finding the ‘right way’ to do something, the absolute key to living your life. It’s about trying, and failing, and using that failure to succeed the next time. Do you think that you can do that?”

The young man looked at the ground for a moment. “I…I think so.”

“Good!” said the monk. “Then I guess we’re done here.”

The young man rose, feeling both exhausted and enlivened. Turning towards the entrance of the cave, he began to leave, only to turn back and ask one more question. To his shock, he found that the monk was gone, candle and all, as if he had never existed. The young man looked around, uncertain, and then took a deep breath before starting the climb down.

Perhaps, he thought, some questions are better left unanswered.