From: Christian Stories of Wisdom
In a monastery in the Loire region, there lived twelve monks under the lax law of their father abbot. Lulled by the rhythm of the seasons, working in the fields, transcribing manuscripts, and fulfilling duties, they were quite happy and had no other desires.
But one day the father abbot died. After respecting the mourning period, the twelve monks gathered one morning in the common hall, where they looked at one another in dismay.
Having entered the monastery at almost the same time, they were like true brothers. So who amongst them was going to take the place of father abbot?
“No,” Brother Jacques moaned in response. “I… I… would never be able to. I… I… stammer.”
“What about you, Brother François?”
“If you don’t mind, I feel more at east where I am.”
“That leaves you, Brother Anthony.”
“Which Brother Anthony? The very thought of it! I can’t even remember my name. Why not Brother Denis?”
“Knowing my bad luck, the monastery would be struck by lightning before the end of the month.”
“So who then?” bemoaned Brother Mathew.
“Why not you?”
“Me? I can never remember anything. How do you expect me to recite prayers by heart?”
And one by one each monk shrunk from responsibility.
The meeting lasted a long time. One by one the monks, depleted of their strength, slumped down in their chairs. Never had they spend so much time in conversation.
Suddenly, one monk who had fallen asleep sat up:
“I’ve got it. God has just whispered the answer to me.”
“So who?” asked Brother Mathew.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you or don’t you know?” asked Brother Anthony, somewhat agitated.
“I’ll be back.”
Brother François left the room. He gave a sigh of pleasure, for the meeting had tired him out and he felt extremely stiff. He stretched himself and greeted the warm shining sun. He walked along the passageway as far as the porch and left the monastery.
He went down the little pebble path and reached the wood. Below in a glade a young shepherd was sitting in the shade while watching his flock grazing. The monk approached him and asked: “Could you give me…?”
“I possess nothing,” replied the shepherd bluntly.
“I only want a louse. You won’t be any the worse off with one less louse.”
“Why do you want a louse?”
“We are short of lice.”
Without understanding, the young shepherd rummaged in his matted hair, and from amongst the microscopic mites that occupied his beard, chose quite a big louse.
The monk, overjoyed, took it gingerly between his fingers and went back to the monastery.
“Look, my brothers,” he said as he went through the door of the great hall. “I have a louse here. Place your beards on the table and I shall put the louse in the middle. The louse will choose the beard, and the beard will indicate the father abbot.”
Some of the monks were a little shocked. Two or three flicked their beards over their shoulders. But since most of them found the idea an excellent one, their beards were already spread on the big wooden table. Brother François with his hand in the air, holding aloft the louse, waited for everyone to comply.
Eleven beards were laid out on the table, side by side. With a solemn gesture Brother François placed the louse in the middle of the table and hastened to spread out his own beard at the place left for him, his chin on the table.
The louse set about smoothing out its back, under the noses of the monks who were examining and eyeing it. Then slowly it stood on its legs, scratched its belly, and began to notice the beards on display. For a louse this sight was a land of milk and honey. It inspected grey hair; glossy and shiny hair; long beards, as well as those that scarcely showed below the chin; the greasy and the unremarkable. Finally it settled on the three hoary bristles of brother Jacques, the stutterer. The louse clung with love for a long-term visit.
The monks stood up respectfully and broke into a Benedictine chant.
So Brother Jacques, acting under coercion, became the abbot, elected by the louse.
At the beginning he stammered a little, but in the end he spoke quite clearly. Some said this was the effect of the louse that had taken up lodgings in his beard. No one knew exactly how this miracle was wrought. Let us say that thanks to the Almighty, the louse enabled the man to reach the heights of his calling.