Alone, somewhere in nowhere
Several years ago, I visited my friends at their farm in southern France. They live on the edge of the “Vercors” mountains, a vast and wild area with alpine character. Together we grabbed some tools, loaded horse, and packed with chainsaws and scythes we went on a pass in the mountains that should be cut free for the sheep and goats. At that time I learned that not far from the pass a monk lives as a hermit. He was sent from his monastery to an remote area to contemplate. Maybe to save the world. And maybe to save me.
For over 20 years, he lived in a simple wooden shed, a Swiss bus stop appears luxurious in comparison. The people from the village kept in touch with him. He seemed to be living up there alone and from nothing, with a water source not far from him. a very poor way of life, from our “civilized” point of view, as I thought to myself. I do not know the background and the mission of his lonelyness. The only thin I know is, he chose the spot up there in the mountains by his own wish.
During our work at the pass, we had some time to look around. With Lena, the daughter of my friends as “guide”, we went to bring him a bag of nuts. We sat together for half an hour, then he invited us into his little bed room. I could not detect a heater, it was completely dark, except for a small hatch. A small ray of light fell on the Jesus and the cross closed to it. We spent some time in silence, meditated and prayed together.
It was an encounter that left a lasting impression on me. We talked about the father and about modern society, to which he could only stay in contact through books, magazines, Christian writings and sporadic visits. He considered the personal computer as the biggest danger for us, which clearly came from Satan himself and would destroy us humans, so his strong believe. Somehow he must have read about it in magazines sent to him by his monastery. Like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall, he could not help but thinking that it was real what he read. The chance to step out and in front of the cave was denied to him.
Altough I could not agree with him in some points, I was deeply impressed by his energy. I could not forget about his presence. His eyes seemed to pierce me directly, as if there was nothing that I could keep from him, as if he carefully would whisper to me: “live in the moment!”.
We had a good time, as far as my French allowed it, and we found that our views were closer together than we initially believed.
The others had cut the bushes at the pass and when we joined the group again, we grabbed the horse and went down into the valley. Honestly, I did not think about the monk for years and finally forgot about him.
Our second encounter
A few years ago, my path led me back to my friends’ farm, and I felt a desire to climb the pass once more. I wanted to visit this fellow a second time, this man who somehow fell out of time.
In the meantime, I had studied sociology and it became more and more clear to me how relative this is, what we consider “normality”. When I talked about how this person lived, nobody really believed that. “So this exists in the 21st century in Central Europe?” “I do not think so.” “I can not imagine.”
So I set off again, this time with my traveling companion. Six years had passed since the first time. At the top, the monk greeted me with my first name. He figured out when the last time I had been there and that I had come with Lena, since we had to cut bushes over at the junction. To say that I was surprised is more than understated.
When he heard that we were in Montpellier to learn traditional Japanese archery, he poured us a glass of water, which he laboriously carried up from a source below. He intentionally filled the glass to the brim and handed it to us. As we spilled a few drops, he laughed at us because we were unable to hold it quiet. “For what should this japanese archery be good then …?” He asked, visibly amused that his movements were more precise at the age of 80 years than ours.
We talked for a long time and although he did not have much to eat, we should also try the honey. Another rehearsal. I do not know what I was more afraid of – suffering a sugar shock in the middle of the remoteness of the mountains, or that he could cut off my tongue with the rusty Opinel knife full of honey sticking to its blade.
His penetrating gaze, his quick-wittedness and the unbelievable presence also struck me this time. I could not imagine his way of life and felt a little compassion for his turning away from the world out there. But his awareness was impressive, and I felt the deepest respect and felt very, very small in comparison.
When he left, he said to me that he would not be alive the next time I came by. Although he said so at the last meeting, this time it was true, he was convinced.
We said goodbye and went down the mountain. The path, the landscape, demanded our full attention. We silently returned to the valley, deeply touched in a mysterious way, certain that we had experienced something unique.
After a few years had passed, I started to make my living with photography. Again and again, I thought of the monk and the desire to visit him with the camera. My wish to document this extraordinary life became stronger and stronger.
In the summer I started to plan and was determined to go there. A phone call with my friends should give me a sense of obligation. Sometimes it is a good idea to introduce others to your plan so as not to be intimidated by your own boldness.
When my friend picked up the phone, I came straight to my plan to talk to the monk one more time. As it turned out, this door was closed – and the monk was dead.
When they wanted to bring him some food in the fall, a black monk’s robe lay under the first snow. Therein he lay, lifeless, on the way to the valley. My friends first called his monastery and then a doctor and the police. His mission was accomplished and he had returned home.
At the same time I was overcome by a shy fascination and deep sadness.
When I think of why I write this down, I come to a rather trivial conclusion: I tell this story because I want to capture an encounter that is unlikely to come back. And because I want to tell you about it. I want to tell you these and other stories. Surprising stories, beautiful stories, thoughtful stories, happy stories, stories about life and about people, and what moves them. About you and me.
Stories that concern you and me.
What do you think now about the story with the monk? What does it have to do with your life? Would you, like him – if you are convinced of a decision – leave everything behind, accept all the consequences and set out on the steep and stony path? Or do you prefer to stay in the valley? Why change something, we prefer to leave it as it is …?
Please do not misunderstand me, I do not want to be the moral one. I myself want to learn from this story. Through this encounter I have recognized something. I now have the strength and the courage to set off when I feel that it is right for me:
Do something new and not wait too long.
Now is the time. Again and again a door closes, again and again a door opens. In this case, I have regretted not having left earlier. This hurts. I changed something about that. And that’s why this story is meaningful to me.
Because it shows me why I do what I do.
During my life I have already practiced various professions. Now I ask myself, “Who am I today?”
I am a storyteller.
My notebook is the camera, my words are pictures, my brush is the light. If you feel like it, have a look at my stories. I hope you like what I have to tell. I wish, it would tell you something. That you can see something that you have not seen before, something that has meaning for you.
When may I tell your story?