WISDOM: Zeal by Joan Chittister

Monastic Wisdom For Seekers of Light

Zeal by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba Joseph, as far as I am able I say my little office, I keep my little fasts, I pray my little prayers, I meditate a little, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward Heaven.  His fingers became like ten torches of flame and he said to him, “Why not be turned completely into fire?”



ho can see God and live?” the ancients asked.  It’s an important question.  While we look for marks of our spiritual progress, the measure may well be in the question: Who can see God and live the same dull, directionless, complacent way they lived before God became the presence in life that makes all other presence relative?  God is not in the whirlwind, the prophet Ezekiel says.  Indeed not, the contemplative knows.  Rather, God is the whirlwind.  God is the energy that drives us, the torch that leads us, the life that beckons us, the Spirit within that carries us on – past every doubt, beyond every failure, despite every difficulty.  To that Energy there is no acceptable, no possible, response but energy.  Those who have no flame in their hearts for justice, no unrelenting understanding of the other, no consciousness of responsibility for the reign of God, no awareness of a prodding, nagging call to stretch themselves beyond themselves, no raging commitment to human community, no vision of beauty, and no endurance for the dailiness of it all may indeed be seeking God, but make no mistake, God is still only an idea to them – precious as it may be – but not a Reality.

Contemplation is a very dangerous activity.  It brings us not only face-to-face with God.  It brings us, as well, face-to-face with the world, face-to-face with the self.  And then, of course, something must be done.  The presence of God is a demanding thing.  Nothing stays the same once we have found the God within.  We become new people and, in the doing, see everything around us newly, too.  We become connected to everything, to everyone.  We carry the world in our hearts: the oppression of peoples, the suffering of friends, the burdens of enemies, the raping of the Earth, the hunger of the starving, the dreams of every laughing child.  Awareness focuses our hearts.  Zeal consumes us.

Zeal, “the burning point” in Greek, has to do with caring enough about something to have made being born worthwhile.  Without it, life is, at best, time spent between a useless beginning and a futile end.  To live without believing in something enough to spend a life for it is dull existence.

Zeal can go awry, of course.  Zeal not grounded in God is a plague of the spirit.  It becomes anti-Semitism, capital punishment, witch burnings, homophobia, sexism, nuclear war.  Zeal grounded in a small God becomes the Inquisition, the Taliban, excommunications, shunnings, and canonical silencings.  “There is a good zeal that leads to life,” the Rule of Benedict teaches, “and a harsh and evil zeal that leads to death.”  The warning is clear: we can put ourselves in the place of God rather than in the arms of God.  To be driven by anything less than the God of Love and so ourselves to love less recklessly everything, everyone on Earth, is to risk evil zeal in the name of the God of vengeance.

To be contemplative we must have zeal for the God of Love in whom all things have their beginning and their end.  We must be turned completely into fire.  Fortunately, we will know when that happens because we will find ourselves consumed with love not only for God but for everything, everyone God created.  There is no clearer sign of contemplation.  Then, and only then, is our own zeal safe to unleash upon the world.

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