From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
A brother went to see Abba Moses in his hermitage at Scetis and begged him for a word. And the old man said, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
hat is right in front of us we see least. We take the plants in the room for granted. We pay no attention to the coming of night. We miss the look of invitation on a neighbor’s face. We see only ourselves in action and miss the cocoon around us. As a result, we run the risk of coming out of every situation with no more than when we went into it.
Learning to notice the obvious, the colors that touch our psyches, the shapes that vie for our attention, the looks on the faces of those who stand before us blurred by familiarity, blank with anonymity – the context in which we find our distracted selves – is the beginning of contemplation. Awareness of the power of the present – monastic mindfulness – is the essence of the contemplative life and common to all contemplative traditions. “Oh, wonder of wonders,” the Sufi master says, “I chop wood. I draw water from the well.” I live in the present, in other words. I know that what it, is the presence of God for me. “The first step of humility is to ‘keep the reverence of God always before our eyes’ and never forget it,” the Rule of Benedict says. See everything in life as sacred. This neighborhood calls something out in us. This tree stirs feeling in us. This work touches hope in us. Everything in life, in fact, is speaking to us of something. It is only when we learn to ask what the world around us is saying to us at this very moment, in this particular situation, that we tend to the seedbed of the soul.
Awareness puts us into contact with the universe. It mines every relationship, unmasks every event, every moment, for the meaning that is under the meaning of it. The question is not so much what is going on in the room, but what is happening to me because of it? What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise? What is God demanding of my heart as a result of each event, each situation, each person in my life? Etty Hillesum, Jewish prisoner in one of Hitler’s concentration camps, saw the goodness in her German guards. That is contemplation, that is the willingness to see as God sees. It does not change the difficulty, the boredom, the evil of a pernicious, an insidious situation, perhaps, but it can change the texture of our own hearts, the quality of our own responses, the depth of our own understandings. Without awareness, enemies stay forever only enemies and life is forever bland.
Until I become truly aware of the world in which I live, I cannot possibly get more out of a situation than a mere outline of reality, a kind of caricature of time. It takes a lifetime to really understand that God is in what is standing in front of me. Most of life is spent looking, straining to see the God in the mist, behind the cloud, beyond the dark. It is when we face God in one another, in creation, in the moment, that the real spiritual journey begins.
Everything in life is meant to stretch me beyond my superficial self to my better self, to the Ultimate Good who is God. But before that can happen, I must be alive in it myself. I must ask of everything in life: What is this saying to me about life? Why? Because when we cease to look deeply at all the parts of our lives, our souls are already dead.
To be a contemplative I must ask always, of everything: What is there in this of God for me?