Illumination for today:
Some years ago I was visiting an Anglican convent. There were many things to love about it. I loved the old building with its historic architecture and homey touches. I loved the enormous pear tree that grew in the courtyard. And I loved how it felt to walk at twilight down the illuminated corridor that ran from the Guest House to the Chapel.
The sisters were a wise and jovial bunch, and they had rather brilliantly made the guest corridor into a display of wonderful books which could be perused and bought. I consider it a happy accident (or perhaps a “divine appointment”?) that I discovered there a strange little book called “Tales of a Magic Monastery” by Theophane the Monk. I adore this book, though others tell me they do not “get it” at all. For me, it is filled with thought-provoking vignettes and profound insights, like this one:
“Beautiful, worthwhile, noble”
When I was young I went to the Magic Monastery, hoping to join. I expected to be questioned and asked to get letters of recommendation. Instead, the monk handed me a book. “Here, take this. It’s a blank book. Each day you can write down on one page what you have done that day that’s beautiful, worthwhile, noble. When you’ve filled the book that way, you can come back. We’ll look through it and see if we want to take you. And here – here’s a pencil for you – with an eraser.”
Well, I went home and set to work. Each day I tried to think of something beautiful, worthwhile, noble, to do. And at the end of the day I’d write it down, with some satisfaction. But regularly, a few days later, or a few weeks later, when I’d reread it, it would seem so paltry. Then I’d use my eraser.
Well, that was more than thirty years ago. I’ve long since used up the pencil and worn down the eraser. And I gave the book away. How can I go to the Magic Monastery? They need me here. And I need them. (Theophane the Monk, Tales of a Magic Monastery)
I’m pretty sure the inspiration for this comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verse 8, which says:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Philippians 4:8 NASB)
This is a wonderful text and I don’t think the contemplative who wrote “Tales” was trying to be dismissive. I think he’s suggesting that we not become too attached to an ideal that never touches our reality. Instead, we need to thrive where we have been planted.
When the grittiness of reality becomes discouraging, pause, and lift your gaze. Take time for prayer and scripture reading. Learn about something beautiful. Or, for the gardeners out there, spend time with growing things, cultivating them, caring for them, watching the natural world with child-like wonder. These things have a way of lifting the mind from the stresses of life to consider the Creator of life. And it is in considering the Creator of life that everything else comes into its rightful perspective.