From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Cassian taught this: Abba John, abbot of a large monastery, went to Abba Paesius who had been living for forty years far off in the desert. As John was very fond of Paesius and could therefore speak freely with him, he said to him, “What good have you done by living here in retreat for so long, and not being easily disturbed by anyone?” Paesius replied, “Since I have lived in solitude, the sun has never seen me eating.” Abba John said back to him, “As for me, since I have been living with others, it has never seen me angry.”
olitude, a sometimes romanticized and often exaggerated element of the contemplative life, has its own struggles, of course. But, the desert monastics imply, when we choose solitude as the kiln for our souls, the temptation can be to gauge spiritual development by a lesser standard than the Gospel describes. When a person lives alone, the ancients knew, it can be very beguiling to confuse practice with holiness. If the measuring stick of spirituality is simply rigid physical asceticism and fidelity to the rules, the fasts, the routines, then spiritual ripening is simply a matter of some kind of spiritual arithmetic. We count up what we’ve done, what we’ve “given up,” what we’ve avoided and count ourselves holy. The problem, these great masters of the spiritual life knew, is that such a measure is a partial one. To claim full human development, total spiritual maturity, outside the realm of the human community is to claim the impossible.
The real contemplative does not have to withdraw from life to find God. The real contemplative hears the voice of God in the voice of the other, sees the face of God in the face of the other, knows the will of God in the person of the other, serves the heart of God by addressing the wounds, answering the call of the other. “The most valiant monastics,” the Rule of Benedict insists, “are those who live in community. Let permission to live alone be seldom given.” Saint Basil, an early leader of Eastern Monasticism, asks pointedly, “Whose feet shall the hermit wash?” The implications are clear. It is human community that tests the spiritual grist of the human being.
Community, Abba John teaches, calls us to the kind of relationships that walk us through minefields of personal selfishness, that confront us with moments of personal responsibility, that raise us to the level of personal heroics, and lead us to the rigor of personal compassion day after day. It is when we see in the needs of others what we are meant to give away that we become truly empty of ourselves. It is in the challenges of the times that we come to speak the Spirit. It is when we find ourselves dealing with the downright intransigence of the other that we understand our own sin. It is when we recognize in the world around us the call of God to us that our response to the human race becomes the measuring stick of the quality of our souls.
When anger rages in us unabated and unresolved, we obliterate the other in our hearts. When months go by and we never even speak to our neighbors, never seek them out, never stir ourselves out of our hermitages to admit their existence, we deny creation. When advice is something we resist and questions are something we avoid in life, God has no voice by which to call us.
The contemplative sees the Creator in the gleam of the created. God, we come to realize, is indeed everywhere. The goodness we see in the other gives us a glimpse of the face of God. What we learn from the other we learn from ourselves. The honor with which we regard the other unmasks our own theology of creation. The way we react to the needs of the other tells us something about our own needs. The attention we give to another exposes our real sense of the breadth of the universe and stretches it beyond ourselves. We see in others the kind of commitment it takes to go on believing when our own belief falters. We look to others for the kind of vision that expands our own beyond the daily. We depend on others for the kind of wisdom that exceeds mere answers. We hold on to others to find the kind of love that makes life rich with meaning, certain proof of the everlasting love of a God for whom there is no word.
Clearly, in the serious contemplation of our place in the human community lies the quality of our contemplation. To be a real contemplative we must every day take others into the narrow little confines of our lives – and listen to their call to us to be about something greater than ourselves.