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The Fruit of Contemplation

Once, a brother committed a sin in Scetis, and the elders assembled and sent for Abba Moses. He, however, did not want to go. Then the priest sent a message to him, saying, “Come, everybody is waiting for you.” So he finally got up to go. And he took a worn-out basket with holes, filled it with sand, and carried it along. The people who came to meet him said, “What is this?” Then the old man said, “My sins are running out behind me, yet I do not see them. And today I have come to judge the sins of someone else." When they heard this, they said nothing to the brother and pardoned him.

The desert monastics are clear: self-righteousness is cruelty done in the name of justice. It is conceivable, of course, that we might find a self-righteous religious. It is feasible that we, like Abba Moses, could certainly find a self-righteous cleric. It is probable that I might very well find myself dealing with a self-righteous friend or neighbor or even family member. But it is not possible to find a self-righteous contemplative. Not a real contemplative.

Contemplation breaks us open to ourselves. The fruit of contemplation is self-knowledge, not self-justification. “The nearer we draw to God,” Abba Mateos said, “the more we see ourselves as sinners.” We see ourselves as we really are, and knowing ourselves, we cannot condemn the other. The whole world changes when we know ourselves. Broken ourselves, we bind tenderly the wounds of the other.

The most telling measure of the meaning of kindness in life is memories of the unkindness in our own: scenes from a childhood marked by the cruelty of other children, recollections of disdain that scarred the heart, moments of scorn or rejection that leave a person feeling marginalized in the human community. In those moments of isolation, we remember the impact of the fracturing of hope. We feel again the pain that comes with the assault on that sliver of dignity that refuses to die in us, however much the degradation of the moment. It is then that we come to understand that kindness, compassion, understanding, acceptance is the irrefutable mark of holiness, because we ourselves have known—or perhaps have never known—the balm of kindness for which we so desperately thirsted in those situations. Kindness is an act of God that makes the dry dust of rejection digestible to the human psyche.

Cruelty is not the fruit of contemplation. Those who have touched the God who lives within themselves, with all their struggles, all their lack, see God everywhere and, most of all, in the helpless, fragile, pleading, frightened other. Contemplatives do not judge the heart of another by a scale on which they themselves could not be vindicated.

The pitfall of the religion of perfection is self-righteousness, that cancer of the soul that requires more of others than it demands of itself and so erodes its own fibre even more. It is an inner blindness that counts the sins of others but has no eye for itself. The self-righteous soul, the soul that preens on its own virtue, denies itself the self-knowledge that enables God to ignore what is lacking in us because our hearts are on the right way. It blocks the spirit of life from filling up the gaps within us that we ourselves are helpless to repair because the soul is not ready to receive.

Real contemplatives receive the other with the open arms of God because they have come to know that for all their emptiness, God has received them. To be a contemplative it is necessary to take in without reservation those whom the world casts out, because it is they who show us most clearly the face of the waiting God.

—from Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, by Joan Chittister