From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
One day Abba Arsenius was asking an old Egyptian man for advice. There was someone who saw this and said to him: “Abba Arsenius, why is a person like you, who has such a great knowledge of Greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this about your thoughts?” And Abba Arsenius replied, “Indeed, I have learned the knowledge of Latin and Greek, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.”
hanging the way we go about life is not all that difficult. We all do it all the time. We diet because we want to change the way we look. We learn to ski or fish or bowl or play pinochle when we want to change the patterns of our lives. We move to the country when we want to change the clatter of our environment. We change jobs, states, houses, relationships, lifestyles over and over again as the years go by. But those are, in the main, very superficial changes. Real change is far deeper than that. It is changing the way we look at life that is the stuff of conversion.
Metanoia, conversion, is an ancient concept that is deeply embedded in the monastic worldview. Early seekers went to the desert to escape the spiritual aridity of the cities, to concentrate on the things of God. “Flight from the world” – separation from the systems and vitiated values that drove the world around them – became the mark of the true contemplative. To be a contemplative in a world bent on materialism and suffocated with itself, conversion was fundamental. But conversion to what? To deserts? Hardly. The goal was purity of heart, single-mindedness of search, focus of life. Over the years, with the coming of the Rule of Benedict and the formation of monastic communities, the answer became even more clear. Conversion was not geographical. The flight was not from any one kind of location to another. We do not need to leave where we are in order to become contemplative. Otherwise, the Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee surrounded by lepers and children and sick people and disciples and crowds of the curious and the committed was no contemplative either. Jesus the healer, the prophet, the preacher, the teacher, by that standard, was not engrafted into the mind of God. The thought appalls. No, surely contemplation is not a matter of place. “Flight from the world” is not about leaving any specific location. “Flight from the world” is about shedding one set of attitudes, one kind of consciousness for another. On the contrary, we simply have to be where we are with a different state of mind. We have to be in the office with the good of the whole world in mind. We have to be on the corporate board with the public at heart. We have to be in the home in a way that has more to do with development than with control. What Benedict wanted was conversion of heart.
But conversion to what?
The answer never changes. In every great religious tradition the concept is clear: To be contemplative we must become converted to the consciousness that makes us one with the universe, in tune with the cosmic voice of God. We must become aware of the sacred in every single element of life. We must bring beauty to birth in a poor and plastic world. We must restore the human community. We must grow in concert with the God who is within. We must be healers in a harsh society. We must become all those things that are the ground of contemplation, the fruits of contemplation, the end of contemplation.
The contemplative life is about becoming more contemplative all the time. It is about being in the world differently. What needs to be changed in us? Anything that makes us the sole center of ourselves. Anything that deludes us into thinking that we are not simply a work in progress, all of whose degrees, status, achievements, and power are no substitute for the wisdom that a world full of God everywhere, in everyone, has to teach us. Anything that drowns out the voice of the Ultimate within must be damped.
To become a contemplative, a daily schedule of religious events and practices is not enough. We must begin to do life, to be with people, to accept circumstances, to bring good to evil in ways that speak of the presence of God in every moment.