Saint John of the Cross, a Carmelite priest and a great mystic, taught the monks a humble exercise; to sit and contemplate where they could view the open sky, hills, trees, fields, and growing plants, and to call upon the beauty of these things to praise God. This simple meditation on Nature reminds us of Divine Power, and the wisdom and goodness that exist in Her. If we stop for a moment to consider the origin, magnitude, beauty, fullness, activity, and order of all things, we cannot doubt the beneficence of God.
To be constantly in prayer in all we do is referred to in Eastern Christianity as living within a poustinia. Although this originally meant a sparsely furnished room where one could focus solely on prayer, poustinia has come to mean any place where you can take refuge in God—especially within the quiet center of your own being. When you enter the poustinia in prayer, you begin to understand that as we come from eternity, so will we return to eternity. Within this simple state of mind comes a tremendous peace, a peace that shatters the illusion between life and death. As we understand that life is truly timeless, our attitude becomes like that of the poustinik, and all fear gradually disappears.
To pray and align our soul with God’s will in this way requires the willingness to risk the known for the unknown. It also requires the willingness to cultivate self-awareness; in fact, self-awareness is an essential tool for the fulfillment of the humble instructions of St. John. If we were made in the “image of God” what is that image supposed to look like? Within the soul’s desires we discover that there are only three things we need: To love, to be loved, and to feel that we belong. If God is love, and we are to be the image of God, then we were made to love, and when we love we are most like God.
In life, the soul does not grow in the same way as the body, although we often speak as if it does. As the body grows older and begins to lose strength, the soul gains strength—but only if we nourish our spiritual being. The mystery that surrounds spiritual growth can only occur if we are open to it. We cannot live life fully being spiritually stagnant, merely functioning, lacking imagination, with knowledge but no wisdom, with little or no creativity, without the expression of art and music, without the pursuit of selfless love. The book of Psalms tells us, “If today you hear my voice, harden not your hearts.” We must listen, with our hearts and souls, in order to follow our true path, which is the path of love. The pursuit of spirit is spiritual love, expressed as compassion, tenderness, concern for others, service, goodness, gentleness, forgiveness, and understanding.
Thomas Merton, a well-known Trappist monk who was a brilliant writer, spiritual master, and a man who embodied the quest for God and human solidarity, wrote one of my favorite prayers that speak to this pursuit.
Thoughts in Solitude
by Thomas Merton
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The ultimate abandonment of one’s role is not to have a self as a fixed point of reference; it is the freedom to manifest God with selfless love through one’s own uniqueness. From a place of poustinia within, I offer this prayer to you:
Shed your light upon all of our thoughts,
Breathe holy inspiration into our hearts and minds,
Bring peace to the world and us.