Excerpts on Enlightenment from Joan Chittister. Selections from “Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.”
Amma Syncletica said: “In the beginning, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.”
Enlightenment is the ability to see beyond all things we make God to find God. We make religion God and so fail to see godliness where religion is not, though goodness is clear and constant in the simplest of people, in the remotest of places. We make national honor God and fail to see the presence of God in other nations. We make personal security God and fail to see God in the bleak and barren dimensions of life. We make our own human color the color of God and fail to see God in the one who comes in different guise. We give God gender and miss the spirit of God in everyone. We separate spirit and matter as if they were two different things, though we know now from quantum physics that matter is simply fields of force made dense by the spirit of Energy. We are one with the Universe, in other words. We are not separate or different from it. We are not above it. We are in it, all of us and everything, swimming in an energy that is God. To be enlightened is to see behind the forms to the God who holds them in being.
Enlightenment sees, too, beyond the shapes and icons that intend to personalize God to the God that is too personal, too encompassing, to be any one shape or form or name. Enlightenment takes us beyond our parochialisms to the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, in the universe.
To be enlightened is to be in touch with the God within and around us more than it is to be engulfed in any single way, any one manifestation, any specific denominational or nationalistic construct, however good and well-intentioned it may be.
The important thing to remember in the spiritual life is that religion is a means, not an end. When we stop at the level of the rules and the laws, the doctrines and the dogmas—good guides as these may be—and call those things the spiritual life, we have stopped far short of the meaning of life, the call of the divine, the fullness of the self.
To be contemplative I must put down my notions of separateness from God and let God speak to me through everything that seeps through the universe into the pores of my minuscule little life. Then I will find myself, as Abbess Syncletica promises, at the flash point of the divine fire.
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is founder and Executive Director of BENEVISION: A Resource Center for Contemporary Spirituality. Her many bestselling books include The Gift of Years, The Ten Commandments, A Passion for Life, and There Is a Season.