From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph: “Tell me how I can become a monastic.” And Abba Joseph replied, “If you want to find rest here, and hereafter, say in every occasion, ‘Who am I?'”
ho is there anywhere in the world who is not looking for something: for approval, for money, for a home, for a career, for success, for security, for happiness? We are, by nature, spiritual foragers, seekers after grails. We look constantly for laurels and trophies cast in the crystal of time or the stardust of eternity. We are all on a quest for something. The distinguishing questions are two: For what am I seeking, and who am I as a result of the search?
Some people search for shadows on a wall and end in disillusionment. Others search for achievements cast in stone and, when the monuments to themselves crumble and fail to satisfy, end in discontent. Still more search from place to place at a frantic pace, tasting this, discarding that, demanding this, rejecting that till the very fury of the hurt exhausts their hearts and sears their souls. They are dabblers in life, connoisseurs of the superficial and the dissembling. Who they are as a result of the search, other than earnest wanderers, even they do not know.
Religion – and spirituality – have their own kind of dilettantes, seekers who go from master to master, from system to system, from pious consolation to pious consolation, from spiritual posturings to spiritual escapes, but who never really appreciate the process, let alone the end of the journey. They seek but they never, ever find a home for the heart that lasts beyond the seeking. Religion – and spirituality – become bromides meant to ease a present pain or fill the current emptiness, rather than to take us below the urge of the seeking to find the source. We make religion our excuse for not finding God.
Indeed, there are people aplenty who use religion itself as a way to get the power they seek, the attention they crave, the comfort they need – and most of us are among them at one time or another. But they are not the contemplatives of the world.
Contemplatives do not take life as an obstacle to insight, going from taste to taste until the taste buds of the soul go dry. Contemplatives do not wander from church to church, from guru to guru trying to find a formula outside of themselves to fill up what is missing inside themselves. Contemplatives do not need to go anywhere at all to find where God waits to meet them on the road of the self. The contemplative simply stands in place and in the standing answers to question, “Who am I?” with the answer, “I am the one who waits for God within.” I am, in other words, the one who pursues the center of life. I am the one who goes behind every system to the source. I am the one who is in search of the Light that is distant from my darkened soul and alien to my restless mind and extraneous to my scattered heart. I am the one who realizes that the distance between God and me is me.
To lead a contemplative life requires that we watch what we’re seeking – and why we’re seeking it. Even good can become noise in the heart when we do it, not because it’s right, but becuase it will in turn do something for us: Bring us status. Make us feel good. Give us security. Require little of our own lives.
God is more consuming, more fulfilling than all those things. The grail we seek is God alone. But talking about God is not the same as searching for God, all the simple saints, all the fallen heirachs to the point. To be a contemplative we must seek God in the right places: within the sanctuary of the centered self.