Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This, then, is the good zeal which members must foster with fervent love: ‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other’ (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. Among themselves they show the pure love of sisters and brothers; to God, reverent love; to their prioress or abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.
In communal relating perhaps there is a continuum, a continuum of zeal. At one end there is a way of being in love that is fostered in the life of all as they grow in living “with fervent love”. This chapter of the rule describes this way of being in love as a way of other centredness that is exemplified by respect for the other, not just patience but “the greatest patience” for another’s weaknesses of character and behaviour, as well as the practice of an intuition that sees first what is best for another rather than a way of thinking that begins and ends only with what is best for me.
Commitment to each other is a life-long pilgrimage of slowly (and at times painfully) opening up and responding to each other in these ways. In the Rule, obedience to each other has as its foundation in an obedience to love.
At the other end of the continuum of zeal there is the ‘full flowering’ of bitterness: a human life twisted with fear, resentment, hostility, and unhealed pain. It is the result of a pride-filled egocentricity lost in the illusion of its own alienation. Bitterness becomes the gall with which this person poisons themselves and, perhaps, the communal life. A heart full of bitterness is a heart cut off from the love life of God within it.
Egocentricity often has as its roots in our hurts, our wounds, the injustices of our lives. Often, to lose egoism enough we need enough of our life hurt to be healed. This is the crux: we avoid our own healing because it is hard, and yet we deeply long for the life that healing can bring. Be in community long enough and our own healing can become increasingly harder to avoid. Good zeal is the fruit of healing.
Movement back and forth along this continuum of zeal can continue all our lives. The movement toward being in love happens via an ongoing daily conversion, or transformation, of our lives by God. Sometimes we resist this, other times we embrace it. Each day we are invited to decide, once again, for it. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay.
The jewel of this chapter is found in its last line: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.” Here the way forward, away from bitterness and into being in love, is set out for us: be simply focused first on Christ. Christ is the fullness of being in love already with us inviting our whole humanity to be in union with it.
Other-centredness is the fruit that grows from a focus on Christ. In this way, other-centredness is not an act of persistent and determined will that only some have the temperament for. Other-centredness, with its respect, great patience, and intuition, is the natural consequence of a genuine focus on the person of Christ. Focus first on Christ and other centredness will follow.
Commitment to contemplative practice is a commitment to the steady inward growth of a focus on Christ. Meditation is a daily focusing and re-focusing of our attention on Christ until we are, in mind and in body, of Christ. Meditation makes being in love possible.
If meditation is the inward focus on the life of Christ, community life is the outward focus. Community life is where our inner movement away from bitterness and into love gets practical.
As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs,
the autumn rain covers it with blessings.
They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion. (Psalm 84:6-7)
Relating with ourselves and others can be the Bitter Valley. It is a hard thing to live with behaviour and character that seems ‘tailor made’ to bring out the worst in us.
There can be enemies in community, in family, in any place where there is an investment in relating. Often they remind us of what we hate in ourselves. These enemies carry our projections so that we may continue on oblivious to the shadow in us. Perhaps their behaviour and world view may be alien from our own. Perhaps they are simply out for number one – themselves. Their presence can reek of injustice.
It is these enemies, those that challenge the flavour of our zeal, which can be our springs: springs of our own self-knowledge, springs of our own grace-filled healing, springs which God uses to lead us (often painfully) to that spring of everlasting life welling up from deep within us – the well of divine being in love.
Community life uncovers springs in a bitter valley. We can drink deeply; we can take a sip; we can take sip after sip. Perhaps all we can do is stand before the spring and do everything to not turn away from it.
Meditation invites us to enter the spring of everlasting life within us – to dip our toes in it and in time be submerged in it. This is why meditation in community can be so powerful. If the experience of community shows us springs in the people our personalities would prefer to dislike (even hate), then meditation with them asks us to be inwardly healed so that we might grow in love for them. Communal life then puts into practice this inward healing. As we do this we also love ourselves.
A commitment to communal life without a personal commitment to our contemplative heart is a commitment that leaves open a heightened risk of blindness to the springs in the valley. Meditation, because it is a practice and a training of attention on Christ, always has in it the possibility of us learning to see springs. This is why, at Meditatio House, meditation together is of such vital importance. It can take us to that place within that every fibre of our psyche may just want to avoid: that centre of grace, of Christ, of change, of ‘spring sight’, of healing, and a growth in love for everyone.
If we can keep meditating together, then there is every change that we won’t give up on each other and on ourselves – on all who make up whatever community we find ourselves in.
Why do you say that the other person has caused you suffering? That person has actually brought you cleansing. Moreover, you should think of that person as a healer, sent to you by Christ. You ought to suffer for the sake of that person (Acts 9:16), and you should regard that person as your benefactor. (Abba Zosimas).