From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Some disciples came to see Abba Poeman and said to him: “Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake?” And the old man said to them: “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.”
nderstanding – compassion – is the foundation of a monastic lifestyle. Without it there is no hope at all for developing a community out of strangers. The Rule of Benedict is brimming with the concept: Monastics are not to bother the procurator of the monastery at undue times. People are not here simply to meet our demands. The doorkeeper is to welcome guests kindly at any hour, day or night. When people have needs we must do what we can to meet them. Monastics who need more than the rule allots are to be given it, no questions asked. The person is always more important than the rule. Meal servers are to be fed before the others so their work is no harder than necessary. No one exists for our satisfaction. Monastics who fail to live the life as they promised they would are to be counseled as well as corrected. All faults are forgivable; all life is a succession of stages. It is a Rule, in other words, that knows the limitations of the human condition – and honors them.
Life is not perfect and people are not perfectible. Only understanding, only compassion – the ability to bear life with the rest of humanity, whatever burdens the bearing brings – perfects us. When that concept gets lost in the name of religion, gets forgotten in the name of goodness, religion has gone awry and virtue has lost its meaning. God is compassionate and gives us what we need. No one can possibly be truly contemplative, truly in touch with the God-life, truly infused by the spirit of God, who does anything less for the sake of the other.
Contemplation is the mirror through which we come to touch the greatness of God, yes, but contemplation is also the filter through which we discern the scope of our smallness and the potential of our greatness at the same time. The contemplative looks for perfection nowhere but in God. The contemplative understands brokenness. And, most of all, the contemplative realizes that it is precisely at the point of personal need that God comes to fill up the emptiness that is us.
The contemplative knows that what we lack is our clear claim we have to the fullness of God. Not to know what we lack is to become our own gods, a more than sickly substitute for the real thing. When contemplation, that absorption in God that fills a person with the consciousness of the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, is real, we are consumed with love. There is no one for whom we do not care, no one who is beneath us. God, we know, is where we least of all expect God to be, waiting for us to realize that.
Then, when we come to realize all of that, it becomes perfectly plain: There is no rule that means more than the person in front of us. There is no sin too great to be forgiven. There is no need that must not be reckoned with. There is no suffering I can rightly ignore. There is no struggle I can condemn. There is no pain I am not obliged to bear.
God understands. And so, therefore, does the real contemplative.