A brother went to see Abba Moses in his hermitage at Scetis and begged him for a word. And the old man said: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
What is right in front of us we see least. We take the plants in the room for granted. We pay no attention to the coming of night. We miss the look of invitation on a neighbor’s face.
We see only ourselves in action and miss the cocoon around us. As a result, we run the risk of coming out of every situation with no more than when we went into it.
Learning to notice the obvious, the colors that touch our psyches, the shapes that vie for our attention, the looks on the faces of those who stand before us blurred by familiarity, blank with anonymity— the context in which we find our distracted selves—is the beginning of contemplation.
Awareness of the power of the present—monastic mindfulness—is the essence of the contemplative life and common to all contemplative traditions. “Oh, wonder of wonders,” the Sufi master says, “I chop wood. I draw water from the well.” I live in the present, in other words. I know that what is, is the presence of God for me. “The first step of humility is to ‘keep the reverence of God always before our eyes’ and never forget it,” the Rule of Benedict says.
Awareness puts us into contact with the universe. It mines every relationship, unmasks every event, every moment, for the meaning that is under the meaning of it. The question is not so much what is going on in the room, but what is happening to me because of it? What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise? What is God demanding of my heart as a result of each event, each situation, each person in my life? Etty Hillesum, Jewish prisoner in one of Hitler’s concentration camps, saw the goodness in her German guards. That is contemplation, that is the willingness to see as God sees. It does not change the difficulty, the boredom, the evil of a pernicious, an insidious situation, perhaps, but it can change the texture of our own hearts, the quality of our own responses, the depth of our own understandings. Without awareness, enemies stay forever only enemies and life is forever bland.
–from Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister (Orbis).