We can only marvel at the intricacies of the brain and its body/mind/emotions connections. It is not surprising that the early Christians felt that the only response that we could make to the beauty of God’s creation, of which we are an integral part, would be one of wonder and awe. Evagrius of Pontus (4th c CE), one of the famous Desert Fathers and teacher of John Cassian, saw Nature in fact as the first stepping stones on the spiritual journey. To him it was the first level of contemplation, as Nature was to him and the other Desert hermits a manifestation of the Unmanifest, the Divine. At that level we are transported from ordinary surface reality and leave behind, however temporarily, the duality of the perspective of the ‘ego’ and receive glimpses of the Oneness of Divine Reality. He wrote in a letter to his friend Melania: “As for those who are far from God….God has made it possible for them to come near to the knowledge of him and his love for them through the medium of creatures.” I am sure many of us have had these moments of self-forgetting, a feeling of oneness filled with joy and gratitude, perhaps when faced with a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or being immersed in the light of the full moon, or surrounded by a desert suddenly in bloom or standing alone on top of a snowy mountain. These moments are unforgettable and instil an absolute conviction of the existence of this Higher Reality that encompasses and enfolds all.
We then ‘know’ that the Divine essence in us and around us. Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas: “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split the wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This level of consciousness then leads us to, according to Evagrius, eventually to the second level of contemplation of things not seen by the senses, but directly ‘by a simple glance of the spirit’, which is the outcome of deep, silent contemplative prayer or ‘pure prayer’, as the Desert Fathers and Mothers called it. They taught that it is only possible to move through these levels by gradually letting go of all thoughts, images and forms ( in other words the ‘ego’, our left-brain thinking). It is a move from multiplicity to simplicity and into silence purely by faithfully repeating a ‘formula’ as they called it. As you know, this is the basis of Christian Meditation as re-discovered by John Main in the writings of John Cassian. He stressed that “We know that God is intimately with us and we know also that he is infinitely beyond us. It is only through deep and liberating silence that we can reconcile the polarities of this mysterious paradox.”
We saw in the previous three Weekly Teachings that we have the God-given ability to be open to this different mode of perception, entering onto the path towards these two levels of contemplation. But we all know that the key – paying one-pointed attention to our mantra – is far from easy. Many of us, when faced with a mind full of thoughts and images come to the conclusion that ‘This is not for me!’ ‘I can’t do this’ and we give up. We are not the only ones. Plotinus (205 – 270) – a great influence on early Christianity – said “How is it that, having such great things within us, we do not perceive them….How is it that some people never activate them at all?” But we have the choice to give up or persevere. John Cassian stressed the importance of free-will here: “Consequently there always remains in the human being a free will that can either neglect or love … Grace.”
This quote shows that not only paying attention is needed but also grace. We can’t enter this higher awareness purely by will-power. We need the support of the Cosmic Spirit, which reaches us through the spiritual part of our being. This gift of support of the Cosmic/Holy Spirit we call ‘grace’ in the Christian tradition. As Evagrius puts it: “The Holy Spirit takes compassion on our weakness, and though we are impure he often comes to visit us. If he should find our spirit praying to him out of love for the truth he then descends upon it and dispels the whole army of thoughts and reasoning that besets it.” The important part in this quote is ‘If he should find our spirit praying to him out of love for the truth’. For this gift of grace to reach us, our intention, our longing to re-link with a Higher Reality – ‘our love for the truth’ – plays an even more important part than one-pointed attention on our word.