MYSTICISM: Being Contemplative In The Midst Of Chaos by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life

This book talks about your life – the one you fear is not spiritual because of its complexities and concerns.  Spirituality, you are certain, is the province of those who manage to escape from the pressures of life.  But if withdrawal is of the essence of the spiritual life, then whole generations of spiritual sages have been wrong.  This book is about qualities the world’s most ancient of seekers say are the cardinal components of a contemplative life.  And “escape,” you will notice, is not one of the elements of this long-standing spiritual alphabet.  The truly spiritual person, tradition teaches us, knows that spirituality is concerned with how to live a full life, not an empty one.  Real spirituality is life illumined by a compelling search for wholeness.  It is contemplation at the eye of chaos.  It is life lived to the full.

All we have in life is life.  Things – the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money – come and go, turn to dust between our fingers, change and disappear.  Things do not make life, life.  The gift of life, the secret of life, is that it must be developed from the inside out, from what we bring to it from within ourselves, not from what we collect or consume as we go through it, not even from what we experience in the course of it.  It is not circumstance that makes or destroys a life.  Anyone who has survived the death of a lover, the loss of a position, the end of a dream, the enmity of a friend knows that.

It is the way we live each of the circumstances of life, the humdrum as well as the extraordinary, the daily as well as the defining moments, that determines the quality of our lives.  Rich people are often deeply unhappy.   Poor people are often blissfully contented.  Old people know things about life that young people have yet to learn.  Women have a different perspective on life than men do.  Young people have hopes that old people cannot claim.  Men have a sense of living that women are only now beginning to learn.  Yet, all of them, each of them – each of us – has the latitude to live life either well or poorly.  Ironically, enough, it is a matter of decision.  And the decision is ours.

Centuries ago, some men and women intent on living life beyond the obvious developed a life style, a set of values, an attitude of mind, a way of going through life designed to bring life to life.  These monastic wisdom figures reaffirmed for every generation the balance which becoming whole requires.  This book is about those values.  Those attitudes, those insights, have been tried over time and found to be true.  Most of all, they can be developed by anyone in any situation.  They tell us how to keep things in perspective, how to live life well, how to see the life beyond life.  Those qualities are available to us yet.  They make us contemplatives in the midst of chaos.

Time presses upon us and tells us we’re too busy to be contemplative, but our souls know better.  Souls die from lack of reflection.  Responsibilities dog us and tell us we’re too involved with the “real” world to be concerned about the spiritual question.  But it is always spiritual questions that make the difference in the way we go about our public responsibilities.  Marriage, business, children, professions are all defined to keep contemplation out.  We go about them as if there were no inherent spiritual dimension to each of them when the fact of the matter is that no one needs contemplation more than the harried mother, the irritable father, the ambitious executive, the striving professional, the poor woman, the sick man.  Then, in those situations, we need reflection, understanding, meaning, peace of soul more than ever.  People from all states of life, in all periods of time have known the need, have pursued the presence of God in the most ungodly of times and situations.  This book recalls those qualities and applies them to the present.

Religion is about ritual, about morals, about systems of thought, all of them good but all of them incomplete.  Spirituality is about coming to consciousness of the sacred.  It is in that consciousness that perspective comes, that peace comes.  It is in that consciousness that a person comes to wholeness.

Life is not an exercise to be endured.  It is a mystery to be unfolded.  Life comes from the living of it.  The attitudes we bring to it and the understandings we take away from each of the moments that touch us constitute the depth of soul we bring to all the most mundane events of life.  They measure the quality of our lives.  The truth is that life is the only commodity each of us actually owns.  It is the only thing in the universe over which we have any real control whatsoever, slim as that may be.

It is a busy world.  A frightfully busy world sometimes.  We live in a world the speed and pressures of which consume us, drain our souls, dry out our hearts, damp our spirits and make living more a series of duties than a kind of joyful mystery.  We spend time making telephone callbacks, doing the shopping, hauling the laundry, running errands through narrow, crowded streets, grinding through routines, going to meetings, answering question after question, doing repetitive motions, standing in lines of one kind or another, making the long commute, falling into bed late – too late – day after day, night after night.  We close our eyes at the end of the day and wonder where life has gone.

We spend life too tired to garden, too distracted to read, too busy to talk, too plagued by people and deadlines to organize our lives, to reflect on our futures, to appreciate our present.  We simply go on, day after day.  Where is what it means to be human in all of that?  Where is God in all of that?  How shall we ever get the most out of life if life itself is our greatest obstacle to it?  What does it mean to be spiritual, to be contemplative, in the midst of the private chaos that clutters our paltry little lives?  Where can we go for a model of another way to live when we have no choice but to live the way we do?

The desert monastics, alone in the wilderness of fourth-century Egypt, wrestled with the elements of life, plumbed its basics, tested its truths, and passed on their wisdom to those who sought it out.  Thousands of people saw the difference in their stripped-down, simple lives and trekked out to their small monasteries to ask what it was that could wring such meaning out of such apparent deprivation.  The abbas and ammas, the spiritual fathers and mothers of the desert, left words for the ages to live by.  Fifteen centuries later, their words still ring through time, calling each of us to take as rudders and as beacons a series of values meant to bring depth, meaning, and happiness to the most cluttered, most pressured, most parched of us.

Illuminated Life is a summons.  It invites us to quit looking for spiritual techniques and psychological quick-fixes to give substance to our lives.  It asks us to remember again the spiritual direction that has stood the test of time.  It asks us to go inside ourselves to clear out the debris of the heart rather than to concentrate on trying to control the environment and situations around us.  It leads us to see into the present with the eye of the soul so that we can see into the glimpse of Heaven that each life carries within itself.  It takes us inside ourselves and leads us back out of ourselves at the same time.

Abba Sisoes said: “Seek God, and not where God lives.”  We live and breathe, grow and develop in the womb of God.  And yet we seek God elsewhere – in defined places, in special ways, on mountaintops and in caves, on specific days and with special ceremonies.  But the life that is full of light knows that God is not over there, God is here.  And for the taking.  The only question is how.

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