Realization of what? Realization of the ultimate reality that one’s tradition holds up as the goal of it all: this is what it’s all about. Now in the Christian Desert Fathers there is a very famous saying by the great Abba Moses: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” This “everything” is obviously not a collection of information, nor even wisdom in any ordinary sense, nor even some profound insight or great idea, etc. No, it is what is sometimes called the “Great Realization”—though you will not find that kind of language among the Desert Fathers. There is almost no “mystical” language among these venerable figures, but many signs of a mystical spiritual life (correctly understood) are present in their simple words and in their existential actions and lives. Consider the following words of Abhishiktananda:
“The act of pure love is what awakes. Advaita, non-duality is not an intellectual discovery, but an attitude of the soul. It is much more the impossibility of saying ‘Two’ than the affirmation of ‘One.’ What is the use of saying ‘One’ in one’s thought, if a person says ‘Two’ in his life? To say ‘One’ in one’s life: that is Love.” Indeed. And this the Desert Fathers profoundly exhibit.
Now the word “cell” in that saying is a very interesting word, and it has several layers of meaning but each layer is interconnected to the others. It is first of all an invitation to live within a certain confined physical space. That space, we are assured, will become the place of manifestation and thus of the Great Realization. Similar insights are found in other traditions where that space can be denoted by “hermitage” or “cave,” etc. Consider the following from the incomparable Milarepa:
“To stay in a hermitage is, in itself, to help all sentient beings. I may come to Tibet; however, even then I will still remain alone in a hermitage. You must not think that this is an ill practice. I am merely observing my Guru’s orders. Besides, the merits of all stages on the Path are acquired in the hermitage. Even if you have very advanced experiences and Realization, it is better to stay in the land of no-man, because this is the glory and tradition of a yogi. Therefore, you also should seek lonely places and practice strict meditation.”
Milarepa, of course, has a very austere reputation–one who lived in incredible conditions, perhaps not everyone’s “cup of tea”—not even nettle tea which is all he usually consumed! And the Desert Father “cell” or cave was also usually a very austere place. But we have these wise words from the Upanishads:
“Choose a place for meditation that is
Clean, quiet, and cool, a cave with a smooth floor
Without stones and dust, protected against
Wind and rain and pleasing to the eye.”
Not so bad afterall! But seriously, let us reflect a bit on this “place of realization.” As we noted, it is first of all a physical space: a cell, a cave, a trailer, a cabin, a room, etc. It is where the monk abides–if not 24/7, pretty close to it. It is characterized by solitude and silence. Not a hangout, not a place to crash, not just a functional place, but shockingly enough it seems to be “an end in itself”—just live in that solitude and silence and let it take you where you have never been before! Now very, very few are so blessed and privileged as to be able to actually physically live in that way. But not all is lost for the rest. For “the rest” are also “called”, “given” the Great Realization—-everyone at all times everywhere stands at the entrance of the Gates of Paradise. While doing dishes there is no point of dreaming of a cave along the upper Ganges—Paradise is right there at the sink, Enter…. So the “place of realization” then is seen as the place where your two feet are! The relation between the monk’s cell and Everyman’s (woman’s) place is extremely important and deep and not easy to see or understand—but it is absolutely true. In a sense, everyone is called to “sit in their cell and their cell will teach them ‘everything.'” The monk in his cell is truly Everyman(woman), but he/she has taken concrete steps to facilitate a certain awareness and aliveness to the Presence that is always there, to the Great Realization of Oneness. The existential values that help this awareness, or at least some of them, are solitude, silence, poverty, simplicity, meditation, etc. What happens to the average person “in the world” is that he/she gets lost in the nitty-gritty of historical existence, in the give and take of what the phenomenal ego undergoes/does/desires, in the social values of wealth, success, reputation, etc. Indeed a person can even get lost in the “good things” which they do. So everyone needs to learn from the monk in his cell—and indeed that monk can also get lost and scattered in trivial pursuits and become unfaithful to his journey. So what is to be learned?
First of all let us note a physical characteristic of the monk’s cell—it is a circumscribed space, an enclosure of sorts, a space of limitation, of a very concrete finiteness. That is merely a representation and an embodiment of a more fundamental limitedness which is simply our human condition. It is important to attend to that “limitedness,” to live within it with a certain attentiveness. That concrete finiteness is always there within our humanity, but it becomes more manifest as we experience our inadequacies, our failures, our “sinfulness”(why the Desert Fathers never hesitated to call themselves “sinners”), our frustrations, our inability to be satisfied, our losses, etc., etc. The Desert Fathers did it marvelously–in all circumstances; and you can see it in their stories and sayings. It comes out in their key words like: silence, poverty and dispossession, perseverance, humility(especially that), repentance, hospitality, prayer, etc. etc. If you read their stories and sayings carefully, you will see how they are “attending to the limits” of their situation. This is crucial in understanding what they are up to and who they are, so let us turn to another tradition for a bit of help.
Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Zen who brought Buddhism to China, sat in meditation facing a wall for 9 years. That iconic image should teach us much. In a sense he was “sitting in his cell” and finally his cell taught him “everything.” That wall is our finiteness, or better, the finiteness of our phenomenal ego self that trashes about with fears, confusions, desires, hang-ups, going with whatever is the latest stimulus, etc. The ego self wants to be divine, infinite, fully satisfied, but there is one little catch—death is around the corner, a dissolution of that very identity that is so carefully and assiduously constructed. If you have ever seen a spoiled little child in a market start screaming when he/she doesn’t get what he/she wants, that is the picture of the ego self as death negates all its “achievements,” all its “accomplishments”, all its constructs, all its gains. So the ego self will tend to suppress the thought of death, its dissolution, and “play” at being divine. So many of the stories in the Bible relate to that: the serpent’s temptation to Eve, the builders of the Tower of Babel, Satan’s temptation to Jesus in the desert, etc. The amazing thing is that every person is one with God in the core center of their being, sometimes called “the heart” –this comes as pure gift, not a construct of our doing. Death cannot touch that reality—in fact that may be said to be the ONLY reality. Again, from the Gospels: Jesus asks us why lay up treasure where moth and rust can eat them away or a thief can steal them—this is ultimately the fundamental reality of Death, and that kind of treasure is what the ego self loses itself in.
So that “wall” is everywhere, every place where our two feet are–whether it be the monk in his cell or a person doing his dishes or taking a walk. (Thus the wandering monk is also facing that same wall and can be said to be “in his cell.”) You are facing that wall. So the amazing thing is that this is precisely the place of realization! The Buddhist equation holds: nirvana=samsara — when you see it right! Indeed, when one sees right through that wall!! On the one hand, the mountains will still be mountains(as Zen teaches us) and carrying water will still be carrying water, but on the other hand it will all be different.
Now we need to push our understanding of the place of realization a bit further. If our very personhood, no matter its circumstances, is potentially the locus of the Great Realization, it is because that realization unfolds at the core of our being, the center of our being, in the Sufi and Hesychast tradition, the heart. The monk abiding in his/her cell symbolizes and lives out Everyman(woman) –including the monk himself–abiding within his/her own heart. We see through the wall only from the standpoint of the heart. Otherwise the cell, the human condition, becomes intolerable in its limitations–a veritable prison cell, and modern consumerism will sell you the “drugs and toys” to keep you distracted and entertained while you “sit in your cell and learn nothing” but churn away in desire and endless dissatisfaction.
Here we may very well learn most from our Sufi and Hesychast friends. But a modern rendition of what “the heart” means is provided by Thomas Merton, and this quote is given approval by the great scholar of Hesychasm, Kallistos Ware:
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak, His Name written in us. As our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship, it is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody. And if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing; it is only given. But the Gate of Heaven is everywhere.”
And Kallistos Ware: “In this passage, Merton does not actually use the word ‘heart,’ but surely he is referring with insight and precision to what the Christian East means in its ascetic and mystical theology when it refers to the deep heart.”
The Great Realization will always be explicated in different language by different traditions, and it may be argued that not all these point to exactly the same experience. However that be, in terms of the Christian East and Hesychasm (and very much Sufism), the Great Realization is best approached through the language of the heart as above. Here we arrive at the “ultimate” place of realization when we arrive at the heart. And the nature of this Great Realization begins to be delineated through what is called the Prayer of the Heart.
In Hesychasm, the heart is the locus of the Divine Indwelling. As St. Paul says: “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts , crying, ‘Abba, Father,'”(Gal 4:6). So in the heart we are one with Christ and drawn into the unspeakable mystery and awesome transcendence of the Trinitarian relationships. So much so that St.Paul could say: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me”(Gal 2:20). The Sufis would put it in a more concrete, existential way: I see what I see with God’s eyes, I hear what I hear with God’s ears, I touch what I touch with God’s hands, I walk where I walk with God’s feet, I smell what I smell with God’s nose, I speak what I speak with God’s voice.
Rather bold but marvelous way of putting it! And we can perhaps push it one more step: when I truly pray it is God who is praying in my heart. This is the true Prayer of the Heart. As Kallistos Ware puts it, we come to the realization “where prayer becomes part of us, not just something we do, but something we are, and it can lead us to the point where we are no longer conscious of the subject-object dichotomy, no longer conscious of ourselves praying to God, which leads us to the point where God is all in all.” As Cassian put: “Prayer is not perfect when the monk is conscious of himself or of the fact that he is praying.” For the Great Realization means our surrender to that Total Gift of Christ praying to the Father in our Heart and the totality of our life being swept up in the doxology of the Holy Trinity—Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit–whether we are sweeping the floor or in deep silent meditation. This is a surrender way beyond any words or concepts.
But let us conclude with this brief saying by John of Gaza about his fellow hermit, Barsanuphius:
“The cell in which he is enclosed alive as in a tomb, for the sake of the Name of Jesus, is his place of repose; no demon enters there, not even the prince of demons, the devil. It is a sanctuary, for it contains the dwelling-place of God.”