Mountain Within

Mary Jo Loebig, O.C.D.

Well-known Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, once did a work called Twenty-Three Tales. Contained therein is a story entitled “Three Questions.” Since then, there have been several variations of this story, including a rendition for children. In what follows, I present the version as it was once told to me.*

There was once a ruler who sincerely wished not to fail in anything that might be undertaken. It occurred to this ruler that if one always knew the right person to listen to and whom to avoid, and if one knew the most important thing to do, in addition to knowing the right time for the action, one would never fail in anything. So the ruler proclaimed throughout the land that a reward would be given to the one who knew the answer to these questions.

Hoping to receive the reward, many learned people came forward with different answers. However, none of these answers satisfied the ruler. With this, the ruler decided to consult a hermit who lived in the woods and who was known for great wisdom. Disguised in ordinary attire, and leaving a bodyguard at the bottom of the mountain, the ruler approached the area where the hermit lived.

The ruler found the hermit vigorously digging in the garden. Realizing that the hermit was becoming very tired, the ruler offered to help. While digging, the ruler asked the hermit the three questions: What is the most important time? Who is the most important person? And what is the most important action? The hermit delayed in giving an answer. The ruler continued digging and after a few moments repeated the questions, again receiving no answer.

All of a sudden, the ruler fell to the ground, crying out in great pain, almost unto death. The hermit came quickly to the spot, rubbed ointment on the hurting area, placed a cool wet cloth on the ruler’s forehead and began to fan the sick one with tenderness. For some time, the hermit nursed the ruler back to life. One day, looking directly into the eyes of the hermit, the ruler said, “Thank you, Oh kind hermit, for taking care of me and for rescuing me from what could have been my death. You do not know whom you are serving. I am the ruler of the land. I came that you might give me an answer to my three questions: What is the most important time? Who is the most important person? And what is the most important action? If you cannot tell me, I shall return home.”

Here Is The Answer

With that, the hermit responded, “But I do know who you are. A long time ago, you killed my brother and seized his property. I headed for the mountains in order to save my own life. Here is the answer to your questions. The most important time is this very moment. The most important person is the one before you. And the most important action is mercy and forgiveness.” Although, basically, this is the end of the story, the reader is usually caught up in silence and awe at this point.

I ask myself, “If I were writing the story, what three questions would I pose for myself?’ First of all, maybe, there would only be one or two questions, the first being: What is the one thing necessary? Although there have been many commentaries on this topic the essential meaning of the question has to do with hearing the inner word. For myself, I find that it is not an easy thing to hear that inner word, so personal and unique as it is. For me, the hearing of that word requires assuming a quiet and contemplative stance. For truly, the word seems to rise out of silence and is in no way that of one’s own making. And, when we do hear it, it often makes for us a new consciousness within.

Then too, we know that when we hear the inner word, we are expected to keep it, that is, we are to do what it tells us. This leads us to the second question: How does one carry out the one thing necessary? As I reflected on hearing the word, the following quote came to mind: “To thine own self be true.” At first, this approach seems to be such a non-other-centered approach to life. In actuality, though, if one is honestly true to oneself, a direction does emerge, and others do benefit from the action taken. In being true to oneself, a sort of wonderful and unexpected union with God seems to take place and peace follows – that enviable peace we all long for.

What Is The Grace I Most Need

Upon reflection, I realize that a third related question could actually follow from the above: What is the grace I feel I most need at this time? What grace do I feel prompted to pray for? This dynamic comes from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and has proven to be of help to many people.

I do not ask these questions in order that I may rule my life well. Sooner or later, usually after much resistance, we all learn that our lives are not our own and that we belong entirely to Another.

*Leo Tolstoy, The Works of Leo Tolstoy, (Roslyn, New York: Black’s Readers Service, 1928), p.23ff.

God is very fond
of taking away
our difficulty.

Teresa of Jesus
Way of Perfection, 29:6