A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear?”
There are times when I read the scriptures or the texts of other spiritual teachers and the words light up for me. It is as if each word or phrase is summoning me to greater life and integrity, to a deepening realization and call to incarnation of the image of Christ within. Then there are other times when the words seem simply repetitious and meaningless. It is as if, instead of entering in and taking root, the words are but one of the many daily stimuli that pass in and out of my consciousness. The very familiar parable that comes to us today in Matthew’s gospel is an invitation to reflect upon what it is in me and in us that makes us at moments rich soil and at others the hardened soil of the path, or the rocky ground, or the thorn-filled ground with no space for the seed to grow and flourish in us.
Our availability to receive form for our lives from the word, or, for that matter, from any encounter in our lives, depends in large part on the nature and quality of our attention. The depth and quality of our attention to the Other in whatever form it manifests itself to us correlates to the degree of both our detachment and attachment. The required detachment is from all concerns and interests that are other than the one before us. This detachment creates a space where our “attachment,” that is, our love, becomes directed toward the appeal to us of “the one thing” that is being asked of us by the word or person before us.
In the years of our scholastic formation as brothers, we lived, at least for a time, in a “community” of over one hundred people. It was, thus, a quite stimulated, if not over stimulated, interpersonal environment. Especially in one’s earliest months there, it was challenging to gain a sense of who one was and how one fit in that environment. At one point I received some quite powerful personal feedback. Someone said to me that another person had said to him that I was a nice enough person but in his experience when he was speaking with me I would be attentive until something or especially someone else drew away my attention. My understanding of this was that if in the midst of a conversation with a person someone I preferred came to my attention, I would cease giving my full attention to the person I was with in favor of the gratification that came to me from another in whom I was more interested or to whom I was more attracted. My reaction to this comment was at first anger and then sadness. The anger was the anger of self-defense and self-justification; the sadness was realizing that at times I communicated to people that they were not worthy of my full attention.
Real attention and full presence requires of us that we work at becoming detached from all of the “pre-transcendent” pulls, drives, impulses, and compulsions that so determine our interests and our direction. Our spiritual tradition calls this purity of heart. “Martha, Martha, the Lord replied, “you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:41-2) When the word of scripture, or of another person, fails to speak to me and to touch my heart, it is often because my attention is divided. As novices, we were often told by the Master of Novices that we were to grow in recollection, which meant being fully present to the situation, person, or task at hand. What, perhaps, makes this most difficult is the largely undisciplined and pleasure seeking nature of our minds and hearts. Like my looking for someone who was more interesting to me, we are most often scanning our worlds for what will most interest and gratify us. We have a very hard time trusting that, as with the quail and the manna provided for the Israelites in the desert, God will fill us with all we need in the present moment.
At least for me, my ability to grow in detachment from the “many things” in the external world that draw my interest and desire is largely related to the quality of my own self-presence. We prowl the world, like a hungry lion, looking to devour that which will satisfy our insatiable needs and desires. There is no end to the dispersion to which this neediness leads. For, there is no one or nothing that can satisfy our longings. When we cease our outward exploration and learn to be present to our own lives, we begin to discover that all we are and the little we seem to have is enough. When we come home to ourselves, we learn that we can bear our lacks, our hunger and our thirst, and that we need not relentlessly search outside of ourselves to be filled. We are outwardly attached in unrealistic and deformative ways because we fear that we cannot bear our own lacks and our own suffering. When we begin to learn that we are only really alive as we live present to all we are going through, we become more available to receive the grace, the light, and the love that is always being given to us.
It is our deepest longings and hungers that create the space in us for presence and availability to the word. When I know how much I need God’s word, I surprisingly discover that it is always coming toward me. When I read the scripture or share it with others from this place of hunger and need, I become amazed at how I am fed by it. When I am outside of myself, prowling about in distraction for something to satisfy my curiosity or my need for pleasure, then the words or the persons before me seem to have nothing “of interest” to say to me. So, step one, in a sense, is to cease scanning the crowd for someone or something more interesting, and to be present to my own life, including my sense and experience of lack.
To the degree we cease living in distraction from our own lives, our hearts become open to the actual moment, person, and situation before us. With our hearts now undivided, we begin to experience the love that is in our actual relationship of the present moment. It can be relationship with the Lord in the scriptural word, or the other to whom I am listening and with whom I am speaking, or the natural world that every moment asks of me to realize, appreciate and enjoy my relationship to it. What the tradition terms “purity of heart” is really love. It is our spiritual potency to be in relationship, a relationship that is constituted in love. A friend wrote to me yesterday that he had awakened with the words of the song “Oh, what a beautiful morning” on his mind. When our hearts are really open, we realize that this beautiful morning is a gift of love to us, as is the life that is ours and that we are to live this day. To know the gift is to know the truth of the gospel: what we have been freely given we are freely to give away. (Matthew 10:8)
Far too often, we suffer the fate of what Paul describes: “I may give away everything that I own, I may even hand over my body to be burned; but if I lack love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:3) Even our work for others, so often, does not spring out of love and gratitude for our own lives. How is the love of God to be communicated in our works, if we are not aware of it in ourselves? So, the attachment for which the detachment creates space is attachment to the love of God above all, as we come to know it in the depth of our own lives — as they truly are. To know this love will mean we shall not be searching for it elsewhere, outside of ourselves. Living from the depth of our need for it, we shall discover it is always coming to us, even as we attempt to offer it to the other who stands before us.
To be put in our place is to know ourselves as we are. It is to have the faith that our lacks, our longings, our desires are not too much for us. They are our very openness to God. They are the good soil in which the seed can take root and flourish in us. When we are “grounded” in this humble yet deeply alive self-presence, we shall be amazed at how the Lord never ceases to speak to us, to summon us, and to love us, with that love that is given to be given away.
What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the image we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others. If this virtue remains whole and unharmed within us nothing can injure us, not even if we are forced to omit any of those other subordinate virtues. Nor will it be of any use to have practiced all these latter if there is missing in us that principal objective for the sake of which all else is undertaken.
John Cassian, The Goal Or Objective Of The Monk, ¶7