The Hermit and the Eagle
The Hermit awoke. The chilly air of the mountain cave turned his breath to fog as he shrugged into his long robe, and pulled the hood over his head.
He took up his lantern from the flat rock that served as his table. The Hermit inspected it critically, was it shining brightly enough? Did it need more fuel? Satisfied, he took up his staff from its place nearby, and quickly left the cave.
It was night. The high peaks of the mountains were illuminated only by the reflected light of the harvest moon. Hermit paused a moment, raising his lantern towards the moon as if greeting an old friend, then began to walk slowly along the winding path that led up to a high plateau.
Night birds, led by an eagle, flew before him as if in escort, and around his feet small animals ran in fits and starts, trying to keep pace. Hermit nodded in greeting to these friends, occasionally tossing them bits of food which he had stashed in the pocket of his robe. At one point Hermit stopped his upward climb long enough to exchange greetings with Cougar, who was lying on a ledge awaiting his passage.
The wind was a bit sharper at the edge of the flat plateau. Hermit looked down into the valley far below. He barely seemed to breathe as he stared, straining his eyes, searching the paths which winded upward. He didn't seem to notice when Eagle perched on his shoulder.
"Want me to fly down and scan the path?" Eagle asked conversationally.
Hermit reached up and stroked the silky feathers which rested against his face. "No, old friend, not just yet."
"Why is it so hard for them to find the way?" Eagle asked. "The path is clearly marked. I have flown it many times."
"Think, my friend, of the first time you flew the path," Hermit said. "You were less sure of yourself then. There were many questions in your mind. The way was not as clear to you, and you had no idea what awaited you at the end of your journey. They," Hermit said gently, "are like that."
Eagle ruffled his feathers. "I remember," he said quietly. "It was hard that first time to find my way here. Harder yet, because I had no idea why I wanted to come."
Hermit nodded, lifting his lamp towards the path below. "We both know that the path has many obstacles. We know that at times the climb is hard. They must fight to get here. They must have faith that I am here at the peak, and that the climb is worth the effort."
Eagle smoothed his feathers. "You can answer all their questions," he said quietly. "Doesn't that make the climb worth it?"
Hermit was silent for a moment, and Eagle glanced down into his face seeing a trace of sadness cross it. "Some questions," Hermit said, "are harder to ask than others. Some questions have answers that are right for the soul, but difficult for the ego. Some questions can only be answered with the word 'No,' and this they fear."
Eagle nodded. "I have seen them," Eagle said. "I have seen them come halfway up . . . and even further . . . and then turn back!"
"These grieve me more than any others," Hermit said softly. "They fought so hard to reach that point. They went through so much. They had nearly reached me. I could have helped them find peace and understanding about their lives but they turned back."
"But!" Eagle said brightly, "Some make it all the way here!"
"Yes," Hermit said. "Some do, and for these I am grateful."
Hermit looked up at Eagle and shook his head. "The ones that turn back think that that when they reach me, I will judge them. They fear that I will criticize them. They are so frightened of being wrong. They believe that they have failed along the way because they were not perfect, and that I am disappointed in them."
Hermit gazed once more down into the darkness of the valley. "They do not understand," he said sadly "that the obstacles that they faced were placed there by me to strengthen them! There is no way that they can fail, because the climb is the only important thing! No matter how they overcome, there is no wrong! They don't understand that as long as they keep to the path they are moving towards the light."
The wind lessened for a moment, and from far below Hermit and Eagle heard a voice. They turned and looked into each others eyes for a moment..then Eagle soared into the air.
"Hold the lamp high!," he cried as he streaked down towards the sound. "I will try my best to give them courage!"
Hermit lifted his lamp as high as he could..."Courage," he said softly. "You are nearly there...."