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 are in need of refuge from the troubles they face in life. 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 just 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 this. 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 psalmist 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 this 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 dwells in all of us and is readily available in our times of need. The best way to tap into our inner spirit is to be still and let the spirit touch us. 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.
Second, we must learn to get away 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 likes and dislikes, things that energize us and things that drain us. The key is allowing our times of energy to be times that we can be in touch with God. Find a place to get away. Maybe it is by taking a walk in a crowded park. My favorite place is a coffee shop. Things have changed since Covid 19 but here are my thoughts anyway. 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 a “get away” time. There is me, God and the 30(now 10)other people in the shop, 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. A fellow monk once said of the Thomas Merton, “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives; we were just introverts!” You can imagine that did not go over too well with men who had lived in community for ten, twenty and even fifty years. What Merton was saying is that contemplation is not isolation but involvement with God and man. Through our times of contemplation and prayer we find energy to engage the world as 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 fail to encounter God if they engage in silent meditation and focus attention on our 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 we write causes us to look to God who gives us that gift of language and expression. Sometimes taking a walk and seeing the majestic creation, not just in the big mountains and blue sky, but in the small flower that grows in the crack of the city sidewalk helps 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. There are cloistered monks who never find their monastery.
Find your refuge, its right in front of you.
Lord, Help me to discover that special treasure that you have given me. May I experience the 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 you have given me. Thanks for being there in all those unexpected places and remind me that I simply must still myself enough to see you. Amen