Contemplation Reveals Our Wounds

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister reflects on a wisdom teaching from the Desert Fathers. We encourage you to read this teaching from Abba Moses on the illusion of innocence and the humbling truth that we are all wounded:

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.

Sister Joan describes how contemplation helps us to recognize and to accept ourselves, and others, as we truly are: 

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 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. We remember with a blush the public sin that made us mortal. We recognize with dismay the private sin that curls within us in fear of exposure. Then the whole world changes when we know ourselves. We gentle it. The fruit of self-knowledge is kindness. Broken ourselves, we bind tenderly the wounds of the other. . . . 

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. . . .  

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. 

Joan Chittister, Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 70–71, 72–73.

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