It was said of him (Abba John the Dwarf) that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.
Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’
—-Abba John the Dwarf
At various times people who are in need of refuge have made very big news. The word refuge means: a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. We all need refuge because danger lurks, and safety is a primary need of all. As followers of Christ we need refuge from the problems of this world. Life is so trying and difficult that we want to say that this “Christian thing” just isn’t working. Our culture does not readily respond to the idea of committing to a power greater than ourselves. Many times we feel that we are the first people to experience difficulties. Not so! The men and women of the desert faced this long ago. These Monks were occupied in contemplation and took refuge in prayer. Maybe we can,too.
A few questions:
- Who or what do you turn to when you feel tired or oppressed?
- Is there any time in your schedule to just “get away” while you are in the middle of the crowd?
- Does the concept of contemplation seem workable to you?
- How and where do you pray?
First, it is essential to know that you have a refuge when you feel tired or oppressed. The palmist said: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” In our “lifting up” our help comes. There are not enough self-help books and webinars to save us from those times of spiritual tiredness and oppression. These battles are not limited to our spirit, because they effect everything. We have all experienced times when could not lift our eyes to God or anyone else. In those times we must turn to our inner selves. The spirit of God that dwells in all of us is available to everyone. The best way to tap into our inner spirit is to be still and let the spirit touch you. Contemplation is a tool by which we hear the voice of the spirit. We are carried away to a place that is spirit-chosen. When there, the world seems far away. This journey could be short or long, alone or in a crowd, in stillness or motion – there is no right way to arrive at this place.
Second, we must learn to get way while we are still in the crowd. Very few people can escape to the literal desert to find God. We must find Him where we are. All of us have like and dislikes, that energize us or things that drain us. The key is allowing our times of energy to be opportunities that allow us to be in touch with God. Find a place to get away. Maybe it is taking a walk in a crowded park. My favorite place is a coffee shop. The roar of the grinder, the rumble of the conversations, and even the distinct voice that is coming from the table next to me are like the bells of the monastery calling me to prayer. My coffee shop time is my “get away” time. There is God, the 30 other people and me there, but I have gotten away. Find your place in the middle of the crowd and just get away.
Please don’t take my ideas as being negative towards real silence and isolation. We are all better people for taking times of literal silence, but our challenge is to be a monk in the world.
Third, contemplation is a scary and elusive word. Thomas Merton once said to his fellow monks,” You are not contemplatives but introverts.” You can imagine that did not go over too well to men who had lived in community for ten, twenty and even fifty years. What Merton was saying was that contemplation is not isolation but involvement with God and man. Through our times of contemplation and prayer, we find energy to engage our world as a radically different people. The concept of isolating ourselves in some type of cloister to find God is a type of contemplation that just will not work for the bulk of us. Unfortunately, that is the picture we see when we envision contemplation. If we take the time to rethink contemplation, I believe we can all be contemplatives and monks in the world. That leads us to the how and where?
Fourth, how and where do we engage to take our refuge. The “how” is that we clear our minds and begin to focus on God. Silence, walking, writing, reading, Lectio are all excellent “hows.” Primarily, all of us need to have a desire to encounter God at all times. Not many people that can fail to do so, if they engage in silent meditation and focus attention on breathing and God’s role in giving us life. Sacred reading is a fine way of turning our attention to the One who is sacred. The very way we are given the words that we write, causes us to look to the God who gave us that gift of language and expression. Sometimes taking a walk and seeing the majesty of creation, not just in the big mountains and blue sky, but in the small flower that grows in the crack of the city sidewalk makes us realize that God created it all. Such a walk is not a walk with a destination, but a journey to discover the divine. Now the “where.” Quite simply it is the places God has given you. Your home, a church, a sidewalk anywhere that is available. I waited a great portion of my life to find the monastery, only to find that it was everywhere. Many cloistered monks never find their monastery.
Find your refuge, its right in front of you.
O Lord help me to discover that treasure you have given me. May I experience that warmth of your spirit today and every day. Let me not spend so much time searching for the perfect place that I miss the refuge that is in front of me. Thanks for being there in all places and remind me that I simply must still myself enough to see you.