WISDOM: Growth by Joan Chittister

Growth by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light

Abba Mios was asked by a soldier whether God would forgive a sinner.  After instructing him at some length, the old man asked him: “Tell me, my dear, if your cloak were torn, would you throw it away?”  “Oh, no,” the soldier said.  “I would mend it and wear it again.”  And the old man said to him: “Well, if you care that much for your cloak, do you think God does not care for a creature?”

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nlightenment opens the soul to an awareness of the God-life everywhere, to the holiness of life, to the connectedness of the universe, to the realization of the Oneness of creation. It is a consciousness that makes morality and maturity possible, but it is neither morality nor maturity. Union with God is not the perfection of the self, nor a badge of excellence.  Union with God is a realization of the living presence of God everywhere, in me, around me, above me, below me. “Before me and behind me, to my right and to my left,” as the Irish mystics said.

Union with God is not a static thing which, once achieved, marbleizes the soul into one arrested, unending moment of illumination suspended over life.  On the contrary.  Life is life.  It does not freeze at any time, under any conditions.  Life goes on, whatever our consciousness of God.  And we with it.  We go on grappling with life.  We go on growing into awareness.  We go on struggling to be worthy of the awareness in which we now walk.  And we fail often.

Life is simply not about perfection, because perfection is not something that life offers.  Our bodies do not develop to some ultimate state and then become fixed into some eternal form.  Scientists tell us that all the protein molecules of our bodies change every six months.  Every six months we are made new again, not ostensibly different, perhaps, but new.  Nor do our souls reach a static state.  Every day we make our souls new again.  Every day we rethink old decisions and make new ones.  We grapple and struggle and distort and repent over and over again.  Every day of our lives we grow a little more into God or a little more into self.

Contemplation has something to do with the ways in which we choose to grow.  It is possible to give ourselves over totally to the satisfaction of the self.  We can crave and hoard and accumulate and demand obeisance from the rest of the world until our lungs ache from screaming inside and our hearts echo our hollowness.  We can cling to the worship of the self forever if we choose.  We can spend our whole selves on ourselves, picayune as the topic may be.  Western culture not only supports a concentration on the self alone; it encourages it.  Getting it all and keeping it forever is the banner under which we march in this century.  But there is another choice.

We can choose to grow beyond the self that is a shrine to the idols of the day.  We can struggle to put down the notions that choke our souls in the name of pseudo-superiority: that women are invisible, that men are superior, that foreigners are grist for our economic mills, that nature is for our satisfaction alone, that we are, as human beings, above the rest of the universe and beyond its restraints and restrictions.  We can, on the other hand, make ourselves our own God.  But if we do, we lose the very gift that life is meant to give: the gift of growth.  The contemplative lives to grow in unity with the universe.

To be a contemplative we must, then, live in sync with the mind of God, in tune with the rest of the human race and in touch with the weaknesses of our own souls, those places where the love of God breaks in to fill up what we ourselves do not have.  Growth is not simply about avoiding sin, whatever we know sin to be as we move from stage to stage in life.  Sin, in fact, may be the very thing that brings us to enlightenment.  When I am most angry, I know best my need for peace.  When I am my most arrogant, I realize how puny is my bravado.  When I am most unyielding, I know how isolating is my strength.  No, growth – real growth – is about discovering that God stands by, waiting to consume us.  If and when we ourselves can ever cease to consume every moment, every person, every event, every experience for ourselves, God can prevail in us.

To be a contemplative it is necessary to set out every morning to grow into more than I was when I began the day by growing into the consciousness of the silent God so great within me.

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