A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?” The apprentice looked at his master and said: “No…why?”

“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.”

Source: Henri NouwenOut of Solitude
(Ave Maria Press, 1974, 2004), pages 26-27


The world says, “If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.” Jesus says: “Come spend some useless time with me.” If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us—what prayer will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel—God cannot easily speak to us. But if we can detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to “waste” a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our “useless” time will transform us, and everything around us will be different.

Prayer is being unbusy with God instead of being busy with other things. Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God.

From Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (pages 17, 18).




Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, wanted to know who was the wisest person in Athens.  The Delphic Oracle said, “You are!” 

“That is impossible,” replied Socrates, “because I am aware that I know nothing.” 

“That,” said the Oracle, “is why you are the wisest person in Athens.”


  • Sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and becoming comfortable with not knowing. —Eckhart Tolle
  • The door to God is the insecurity of not knowing anything. Bear the grace of that uncertainty and all wisdom will be yours. —Adyashanti




A 10-year-old boy decided to study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident.

The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training the master had taught him only one move.

“Sensei,” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”

“This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied.

Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training.

Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals.

This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened.

“No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.”

Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion.

On the way home, the boy and sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind.

“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”

“You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defence for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

Source: Unknown


Oftentimes what might appear to be an incredible weakness can in fact be the greatest strength.

Look beyond your limitations and focus on what you have and can control.  Always enter the arena of life with a positive, life-giving mindset.


A rabbi was concerned for a young friend who was becoming worldly and materialistic.

The rabbi invited him into his study and led him to the window.

“What do you see?” he asked.

There was a playground next to the house. “I see children playing,” the young friend answered.

Then the rabbi took a little hand mirror out of his pocket and held it before the visitor’s face. “Tell me what you see now?”

“I see myself,” he said wondering what was going on.

“Isn’t it strange,” the rabbi asked, “that when a little silver gets between yourself and others, you see only yourself.”

Source: “Materialism” #20,  in
Frank Mihalic, SVD
1000 Stories You Can Use, Vol 1
(Divine Word Publications, Manila, 1989)
pages 10-11


  • What is it in your life that tends to get in the way of seeing what is offered for you to see?
  • What blinds you, or if not so sever, what is it that blocks your vision?
  • And here’s one quotation to chew on: Cataracts are the third biggest cause of blindness. Religion and politics are the first two.”


It is not much fun being a rat. Everyone hates rats. You lot burble on about universal love, but you are allowed to hate rats.

There is only one lovable rat in all of your literature – adorable Ratty in Wind in the Willows. And shall I tell you something? He is not a rat. He is a water vole – with a squat face, a stubby furry tail and ridiculous little ears. Pah!

You have made the very word “rat” into a sort of universal insult. A loose woman, a dishonest man, a liar, a snitch, any devious sneaking individual. And I bet you think you know that it was mean, filthy, malevolent rats who infected you all with the bubonic plague – even though some decent and fair-minded human scientists are beginning to believe that this is not necessarily true.

It is hard having everyone hate you, and especially hard when it so unfair: it’s unfair because we run round your stupid mazes to help you with your stupid research.

It’s unfair because we make excellent, responsive and loving pets.

It’s unfair because we self-groom at least three times a day, while you all seem to think that one shower is more than enough.

It’s unfair because we are famously intelligent, while also gentle and affectionate.

It’s unfair because we are good parents.

What’s your problem?

So yes it is hard. And, let me tell you, it is hardest of all at Christmas. The crucial role we played that night in Bethlehem is entirely ignored. And if you don’t believe me, go to Google Images and search for “Nativity paintings”. Believe me there are lots and lots, there are indeed millions, of them. And in a very large number of these paintings there are animals. In fact there are an extraordinary number and variety of animals. You start of course with the sheep but move on fast: cows and goats and donkeys and mules and horses; both Bactrians and dromedaries (two- and one-humped camels to you) and dogs and pigs and a rather strange selection of deer. There are lions and cats and a diverse array of birds. There are foxes and bears and wolves and elephants. There are kangaroos for heaven’s sake – I suppose they just hopped across from the Antipodes.

But no rats. None. We have been excluded, discriminated against, written out, diminished, despised and dismissed. And it is not fair.

Think about it for a moment. Here you have a stable – a fairly basic building with a manger in it – pretty near to the pub in a small rural town in the Middle East, 2,000 years ago. There is probably a caravanserai nearby, because there nearly always is, which inevitably means food waste and human waste. There are no public washing facilities, or even closed toilets. The streets are pretty full and pretty restless at the time because of this census thing that is going on, but the shed is tucked away quietly in a back corner. Now, take a deep breath – what wild animal are you most likely to find there? Go on – try to think honestly and face the facts.

Frankly the correct answer is rather more likely to be rats than peacocks or gazelles. It’s a no-brainer.

And, no surprise, we were indeed there. Which is more than can be said for the penguins and leopards and giraffes and company ltd. who have snuck into the pictures since.

It was pretty disruptive at first, as you can imagine. We had just got our five tucked up for the night, all snuggled in straw in the manger. They were just coming up to a month old so they were all grumpy adolescence – no we do not have acne, but we do have hormones, believe you me – and full of overexcitement and cheek and know-it-all swagger. The pubescent rat has quite a lot to swagger about, to be honest, but the weary rat parents can do without it when you are trying to get them to bed and all of a sudden your space is invaded by a whole lot of silliness. You may have noticed how much drama humans are capable of making about getting babies; it is not that difficult, you know. They could take some lessons from us on this as well as other things if they so chose – but oh no.

Well, if they really cared so much you would have thought some of those fat rich blokes could have made some space in the inn for that poor woman: they did not need to send a whole lot of grumbling servants to hang around grouching about moving the horses and mules out into the yard and winding up our little ones. We certainly did not need those two naggy old ladies complaining that no one understood what women had to go through and men were so selfish … and … and … and …

Then after all that palaver he carried her in.

And then … but it is too hard to explain. She was … well she was lovely, but that was not really the point. And she was so tired, you could see she was exhausted before she even began on her weary night’s work, but that was not really the point either. I don’t know how to say it. I want to say that she was like a rat, but you all hate rats so that will not help you understand. But she was like a rat – she was sharply attentive to her task; she was alert, intelligent about the business, concentrated – as calm as she could be, able to bide her time, still and focused, hard-working.

It is not a pretty thing, birthing a baby, but like a rat she brought her whole self to it and made it beautiful. She was graceful somehow; full of grace in her body and in her mind. It is harder for humans to do the birthing work than it is for us rats – our babies have smaller heads and more pointy noses, and actually despite the various other unfair advantages bipedalism makes birthing harder. It is probably a good thing that you usually only have one at a time. But don’t let anyone tell you that it is easy. She did not make it easy, but she did make it graceful.

We kept quiet; we lurked behind a sort of log-pile in a corner and we watched. I doubt they even knew we were there. And eventually, perhaps soon after midnight, the baby was born. I do not really have a thing about small human babies, they seem sort of floppy and naked and moderately useless, but as neonatal humans go this one was rather sweet – all scrunched up with an absurd tuft of black fur on its head and little wrinkled hands and very silly feet. The young man wrapped it up, I have to say rather clumsily, in some long strips of cloth one of the old women produced for them; and then she fed it like you do and handed it back to her man. They were both smiling, but it was fairly clear that he hadn’t the least idea what to do with a baby in a shed in the middle of the night. He just stood there looking a bit awkward and uncertain.

And then I heard a funny scratchy noise and I looked round and there were our five climbing solemnly out of the manger and scuttling silently across the floor towards some loose straw. But I think he must have heard something, because he glanced up and when he saw the manger he looked relieved, went over and put the wee baby in it. I will not deny that I was proud – for all their carry on and talkback, they could see what needed doing and then do it. Just what any decent parent hopes for.

So then there was a little peace and she curled up and went to sleep and he covered her with a cloak – and it was dark and sweet. But it did not last long. All of a sudden the barn was full of people – someone said they were shepherds though my personal view remains that they were all drunks. What a carry on. And no, for your information, they did not bring any lambs with them: it was December, midwinter for heaven’s sake – there aren’t any lambs in December: everyone knows that. They did not even bring any sheep. Who wants to be bringing sheep off the hill in the middle of the night? Do have some sense.

Eventually they push off and it is all quiet again. The young couple sleep wrapped in each other’s arms; there is a huge star overhead, so there’s some light, but gentle as it were. And then it began to get cold. I don’t know if you have ever been in the desert, but at night it can get really surprisingly cold; apparently clouds keep the heat in and there do not tend to be many of those in a desert. It began to get cold – and we started to feel anxious about the baby.

I thought about waking the parents, but they were so tired and sleeping so deeply and sweetly … however it is not good for newborns to be cold, so in the end my partner just climbed into the manger and snuggled up to the child. He was too young to respond in any way – human babies are pretty slow as you may know, but you could see him totally relaxed, his head against her ribcage and her lovely fluffy fur warm against him. Rather sweet really.

Later the young couple woke and he got up and came to get the baby for her to feed. I was anxious for a moment, because on the whole humans tend to freak out when they see rats at all, let alone rats cuddled up with their child. But not him. He smiled, with a deep sort of amusement, scratched the back of her neck with one finger and said, “Thank you.” And he meant it.

That’s it really. But you can see why we resent the fact that we are never in the paintings, never acknowledged or praised or thanked. I know rats are not always sweetness and light, but – let me tell you – nor are sheep, mules, camels or dogs. Nor are humans; especially not humans.

This is a deep ancient story for us rats. We teach it to our children and carry it with us when we travel. We want to remember it, but also we want humans, and others, to remember it – we are like you really, we don’t always behave well but we always want to be loved. Is that such a big ask?

A while back we thought we might go for canonisation – if all those popes and neurasthenic virgins can be saints surely that mother rat could be too? Apart from being owed, frankly, we also sort of thought it might be a way of boosting our public image. And after all, worldwide, there are considerably more rats than Catholics.

But then we discovered the cost. The boss guy in Rome says he wants to limit what you can pay to get someone canonised to €100,000. Unbelievable. It is not that we cannot afford it – believe me. Two billion rats could raise that much overnight. Easily. That is not the issue. It is just too much money.

The World United Rat Committee is making a voluntary donation of €100,000 to maternity services in the Third World. We think that is a better way to celebrate Christmas.

Source:  “Rattus Beatus” by Sara Maitland in The Tablet
21/28 December 2019, pages 31-32



“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is the centre, and that the radii are the different ways human beings live. When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the centre of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another. And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.”

Dorotheus of Gaza, a sixth-century monk


An unorthodox doctor, who always thought beyond prescriptions, pills and medication, once said to one of his regular patients:  “I’m starting to suspect that the best medicine for humans is love.”

The patient, surprised, shocked even, said: “What if love doesn’t work?”

The doctor smiled and said, “Increase the dose.”

Source: Unkown


“Time heals some wounds, but love heals them all.”  Matshona Dhliwayo


In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster.  He sought refuge under the table and lived there, naked, refusing to partake of the royal delicacies served in golden dishes – all he wanted and accepted was the grain reserved for the roosters. The king was desperate.  He sent for the best physicians, the most famous specialists; all admitted their incompetence.  So did the magicians.  And the monks, the ascetics, the miracle-makers; all their interventions proved fruitless.

One day an unknown sage presented himself at court.  “I think that I could heal the prince,” he said shyly.  “Will you allow me to try?”

The king consented, and to the surprise of all present, the sage removed his clothes, and joining the prince under the table, began to crow like a rooster.

Suspicious, the prince interrogated him:  “Who are you and what are you doing here?” – “And you,” replied the sage, “who are you and what are you doing here?” – “Can’t you see?  I am a rooster!” – “Hmm,” said the Sage, “how very strange to meet you here!” – “Why strange?” – “You mean you don’t see?  Really not?  You don’t see that I am a rooster just like you?”

The two men became friends and swore never to leave each other.

And then the sage undertook to cure the prince by using himself as an example.  He started by putting on a shirt.  The prince couldn’t believe his eyes. – “Are you crazy?  Are you forgetting who you are? You really want to be a man?” – “You know,” said the Sage in a gentle voice, “you mustn’t ever believe that a rooster who dresses like a man ceases to be a rooster.”  The prince had to agree.  The next day both dressed in a normal way.  The sage sent for some dishes from the palace kitchen.  “Wretch!  What are you doing?” protested the prince, frightened in the extreme.  “Are you going to eat like them now?”His friend allayed his fears:  “Don’t ever think that by eating like man, with man, at his table, a rooster ceases to be what he is; you mustn’t ever believe that it is enough for a rooster to behave like a man to become human; you can do anything with man, in his world and even for him, and yet remain the rooster you are.”

And the prince was convinced; he resumed his life as a prince.

Source: Nahman of Bratslav
in Elie Wiesel,
Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Master
(New York: Random House, 1972)
pages 170-171


Here’s a slightly different rendering by Avishai Edenburg

Many years ago, in a kingdom whose name has since faded from memory, a prince went mad. The young heir to the throne took all of his clothes off, forsook speech for clucking, and spent all of his time under the dining room table, pecking at whatever crumb fell to the floor.

The king, terribly ashamed and afraid for his son’s sanity, offered all manner of honours and rewards for whoever would be able to cure his son, and while many physicians and miracle-workers heeded the summons, none were able to restore the prince.

The king had nearly resigned to sending the crazed princeling to a faraway island when a wise man came and promised the king he would solve the matter of the rooster prince. While skeptic, the king nevertheless thought there is no harm in one more effort.

He was then shocked and enraged when the wise man began undressing. “Are you mocking me?”The king screamed. “I will have you put to death!”

“My liege,” answered the wise man. “Lend me your trust, and you shall have your son back.”

Naked, the wise man crawled under the table and joined the mad prince, pecking at crumbs that fell to the floor. The king and queen stared in disbelief at the couple of madmen under their table, but the wise man had a plan.

When the prince grew accustomed to his fellow rooster, the wise man asked that the royal seamstress bring him clothes for two people. As the wise man was putting on trousers, the prince clucked in objection and said the first words since losing his sanity: “what are you doing? Roosters do not wear clothes!”

“Why not?” Asked the wise man. “Why should I freeze, just because I am a rooster?” and for the first time since he became a rooster, the prince felt the chill of the floor, and he reached for the clothes.

The next day, the wise man asked that the servants bring them apples. When the apples arrived, the wise man grasped one and bit into it. The prince looked at him incredulously: “roosters do not eat with their hands!”

“Why not?”Asked the wise man. “I shouldn’t deny myself the taste of this delicious apple, simply because I am a rooster.”The prince pondered the apple and looked at its glistening red skin, and took an apple in his hand and took a bite.

The day after, the wise man asked that the servants set two additional seats next to the table and call for the roosters to be fed as they serve the food. When the servants called for dinnertime, the wise man crawled out from under the table and took a seat. Glancing up at him, the prince said: “roosters do not sit in chairs and eat with the humans!”

“Why not?”Said the wise man. “Why should I endure the cramped space under the table, when I can eat in comfort like humans?” And the prince, after some deliberation, joined them at the table.

And so, every day, the wise man taught the rooster prince to act as humans do until he was completely functionally human, even as he never stopped believing for a moment that he was, in fact, a rooster.


Sometimes, the best way to help a fellow person out is to get down to their level, entering their world, using their logic and world of references in order to help them.

What ways and practices do you employ, if any, to meet others where they are? Is it OK to bring them where you are? Where is the boundary? 



One day the Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him, hurling all kinds of rude words at him, intended to ridicule and demean him.

The Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

Source: A variation of a shorter story falsely attributed to Buddha


People can and will offer us their words, opinions and points of view. None of that can hurt us unless we let it first land in our heart and mind.

  • Holding on the anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. (exact source unknown)
  • Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned. (exact source unknown)


The train slammed into the station, injuring hundreds. The engineer was critically hurt. People toppled over each other, bouncing across seats and against windows. There was blood and glass everywhere. One woman shimmied her way to the platform when part of the station ceiling fell, pinning her. She thought she would die. Then the hands of fellow passengers lifted her, one to another, and she was saved. Later, she wanted to say thank you but didn’t know who to thank. Once on the mend, she retrieved a list of those who were with her that day. Now, one by one, she looks them up, asking if they had helped her. Each of them smiles and says no. Once with them, she can see what each needs, and so she helps them along. She unpacks groceries for an old woman, listens to a widower’s story, and gives a single mom her umbrella. This has gone on for weeks. She keeps trying to find those who helped her, only to help those she finds. Finally, it occurs to her that this is God’s symmetry of kindness. She will never know who helped her, so she can thank and help everyone she meets along the way.

Source: Mark Nepo,
Things That Join the Sea and the Sky: Field Notes on Living 
(Sounds True,  2017) page 113


Describe a time when you were drawn into helping others and what you learned from those you helped.


Once when Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was speaking at General Theological Seminary in New York City, one of the students sitting in the audience nudged the dean, who was sitting next to him, and whispered, “Desmond Tutu is a holy man.”  The dean in response asked, “How do you really know this?” To which the young man quickly replied, “I know that Desmond Tutu is holy because when I’m with him I feel holy.”

Source: Robert Wicks, The Resilient Clinician
(Oxford University Press, 2007) pages 4-5


  • Can the same be said of us by those who we encounter in our daily lives?
  • What do people experience when they are with us? Do they experience a sense of respectful space where they can rest their burdens, anger, questions, projections, stress, anxiety, and wonder?
  • Or, do they feel our sense of exhaustion, need to always be right or in control, or even our desire to be viewed as wise, attractive, witty, or helpful?