I lay sprawled in the snow, buried beneath my heavy black robes. Around me, the Apennine peaks of Italy shot up into the sky, their tips painted in the morning’s golden pigment. The wind sang quietly, and white dust slipped off the leaves of the trees.
I stirred, and a cough erupted from my cracked lips. I had been traveling for sixteen days, if my memory is accurate. “Why am I lying here, nearly dead, upon some cold crag?” I folded my blistered hands and offered a prayer to God. “Lord, help me. Let your will be done to me, your holy servant, today. Amen.” The clouds tumbled across the sky. The fringes of my habit were tattered and crusted with mud. My feet felt like blocks of ice wrapped in soggy, wool socks. Around my neck hung the ivory crucifix my mother gave me when I first entered the monastery.
On a Tuesday in November, I arose early, as was my custom. However, when I sat up, my head felt like a heavy stone, and my face was numb. I shivered, but not from the cold. An image stood before me, still as stone but vivid, nearly real. Isaac on the altar, eyes wide and tear-filled. No ram. No thicket. Isaac turning to ash silently, bewildered. Abraham crumpled nearby, weeping and wiping the blood from his knife.
I knew instantly what this image stood for. Since I first entered the Apennine monastery, I was horribly conscious of my pride. I would speak to someone else, and as soon as they had gone, I would begin to interrogate myself thus: “Why the word ‘very’? Did my smile betray smugness? What did he mean when he said, ‘Ah, of course’?”
I prayed without ceasing for God to remove the pride from my heart. But every day the thorn drove deeper and deeper into my flesh. Over time, I dreaded even speaking, lest God detect an air of arrogance in my words and strike me down. After decades of battling with this spiritual infection, it seemed Satan had come to accuse me. He presented me with this terrifying version of Abraham’s faith, implying, “You trusted God to deliver you, but God has failed you.”
The next morning I threw a sheepskin water jug, dried meat, and a flint stone in a bag and told the abbot that I was going for a walk in the mountains. I promised to return within a few days. I was determined to find Philip the Meek.
Philip was once the abbot of the Apennine monastery and was widely known for his encyclopedic knowledge of both Scripture and the Church Fathers. He had written a discourse on the nature of faith. I had read and benefited from his commentaries on John’s epistles. His knowledge was second only to his unparalleled piety. He was known to spend three hours in prayer each morning in addition to an hour of reading Scripture after each meal. During the rest of his day, he fulfilled his duties joyfully and with excellence. His personal character was beyond reproach. A decade before I arrived, Philip left the Apennine monastery without explanation. I had always held “Philip the Meek,” as he came to be known, in high regard and repeated daily this saying of his: “He who is simplest is humblest; he who loves most easily loves most truly.”
By the sixteenth day of my journey, I had ascended halfway up the highest peak in the Apennines. It was early afternoon when I saw what looked like a small cove in the side of the mountain. As I climbed toward it, I thought I heard the voice of Philip the Meek. “Seek the Lord’s will, and thou wilt find it.” The same low voice echoed, “Knock upon the door of His heart, and He shall open it unto you.” It continued, “Ask of God’s mind, and His understanding shall be given you.” I sat down in the snow, waiting to hear more. But there was nothing but an aching silence.
Once inside the cove, I kindled a small fire. I began to ponder what I would say to Philip if I ever found him. “Philip, teach me how to be humble. Teach me to love God more than myself. I am willing to do anything, just tell me what I should do.”
Just then I noticed a pair of eyes in the darkness outside of the cove. Soon, two more pairs of eyes appeared. I stood still, and in my fear I forgot to pray. I blew on my fire to fan its flames, hoping to keep the wolves back for a little longer. But my breath succeeded only in smothering the small flame. As a stream of blue-gray smoke ascended from the embers, I prepared myself for an ungraceful death.
I clutched my crucifix, closed my eyes, and whispered, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lay not this vain journey to my charge.” I was almost embarrassed in that moment, afraid that God would laugh at my attempt to achieve humility by searching for someone who might well have been dead. When I opened my eyes, the wolves had not moved. Something outside of the cove had drawn their attention. They stood there for a moment more, but then they silently darted away. I heard someone’s footsteps in the snow and a voice saying, “Knock upon the door of His heart . . .”
The next morning, I made my way up the steep side of the mountain. The skies were thickly overcast, and I was soon enveloped in a cold fog. As I continued, the breeze grew into a wind, and I fought to keep my hood over my head. At midday, I could not move upward without hugging the mountainside. I had lost feeling in my ears, nose, and feet, and the wind’s whisper became a constant, deafening shriek.
Suddenly, I heard growling not far beneath me. The pack of wolves had been trailing me. I heard them quickly approaching. My hands slipped, and I fell backward, landing on a cliff nearly ten feet below.
I felt a sharp pain in my wrist. The spot pulsated. I looked down and saw the bite marks. Blood flowed from the wound. The three wolves bit at my legs and tore my robes. A few dizzying seconds passed, and I realized that one of the beasts’ faces had been smashed in. It whined and pawed the snow as it died. The two other creatures lay limp in the dark red snow.
A man stood in front of me, clothed in heavy black robes. He had a fur of some sort around his shoulders and all manner of supplies hanging from his towering frame. His hair was dirty and matted, but in some spots its golden tint glistened. His beard was a mossy-green color. Blood dripped from his hands. Despite the bravery and power of his appearance, his eyes were sorrowful. As I gathered my breath, I asked the man,
“Who are you?”
“In manner of soul, I am a servant of God. In manner of life, a sinner.”
“You are not a monk, are you?”
“As am I. What is your name?” But the man did not answer. “How long have you been in these parts?” I inquired.
“The days of the years of my pilgrimage are forty and three: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been.”
“I inquired not after the length of your life, but of your journey through these mountains.” I was beginning to lose my patience.
Just then, a dreadful thought dawned upon me. “You do not search for Philip the Meek, do you?”
“I do. ‘Seek and you shall find.’”
I realized it was this man’s voice I had heard the past two days, and his footsteps. Suddenly, the man’s demeanor changed. He said, “Remove your robes now, or I shall kill you and remove them myself.” While I disrobed, the man swiftly skinned the wolves and cut the leaner meat from their bodies. He then bound my hands. Lightning sparked in the joyless sky as the man gathered branches. I thought I heard the voice of someone in the thunder saying, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” But I did not know for sure.
The man had laid a mass of branches on a slab of stone. He poured oil on the pile and struck his flint stone. The mass roared as it exploded in flames. I prayed for my mother. “Lord, bless her and keep her from pain and show love to her, your daughter, as she showed love to me in my youth.” I remembered Christ on the tree, saying in a hoarse voice beneath his heavy breath, “It is finished!” My heart was overcome with joy. I had been given what I did not deserve and had been kept from what I did deserve. I wept. I desired neither life nor death; I only hoped to be with God. And at that moment, I truly was humble, for I neither felt it nor thought it.
The man approached me with a knife in his right hand. I said, “This is not necessary. Perhaps we can find Philip together. Perhaps he is somewhere close.”
But the man responded solemnly, “I have just come down from searching this peak. He is not here, and there is not enough food for both of us. You will either die of starvation on your journey back or be eaten by the wolves. This is a nobler way.” He thrust the knife into my chest. “Forgive me, my brother. But I trust that today you will be with our Lord in paradise.” I felt intense pain in my body for a moment, but my spirit was mysteriously still. Comfort and contentment mingled as I looked forward to waking up in the presence of those who loved me most. As he lifted my body onto the pyre, I heard the roaring flames, and the last thing I saw was a black cloud billowing into the wrathful heavens.