Is to be a contemplative to be untroubled by one’s surroundings? Even in the monastery one can still be bugged by noise, the frustration of being misunderstood, the burden of tasks. Some of those who fled to the desert at the time of the desert elders went to escape such annoyances, only to find that the source of disquiet lay within themselves. The radically simplified environment simply put a magnifying glass on the trouble. This much hasn’t changed!

To learn to live a contemplative life is not about being less troubled by things that disquiet us, nor about finding ways to keep from being upset. It is simply to learn to live in the presence of God, to be present to God, and this is the hardest thing when we are not present or enough at home with ourselves, let alone with others.

To live with beauty will help, but the harsh simplicity of a desert can help even more. The mundane and the ordinary and the routine can be dulling, yet these have the capacity to bring into relief the real sources of our dissatisfactions and annoyances as the novel and the stimulating do not—and in their own way, the novel and the stimulating can also be dulling. Neither the problem nor the solution are outside ourselves if we are still trying to live outside ourselves.

In the monastery—as elsewhere—what is asked of us is seldom large. It is the fifty-million little straws of things, encountered and compounded daily, that add up to a life and a contemplative practice. God, and what he offers by his presence, is always here, among the straws and larger things, and always present to us.


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