“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through us all the time. This is not just a nice story or fable. This is true.” Thomas Merton
He was a remarkably unattractive man, a dusty and rumpled beggar, seated at the doorway to Saint Sernin, the magnificent Toulouse Basilica. I had skirted past him on my busy way to hear the Sunday music and to light holy candles. Once inside, I was enchanted by the smell of incense, the majesty of light, and the power of the organ as it echoed through the building’s high arches and deep into my body. My heart was full of gratitude and mystery.
As I settled – and despite my earlier reluctance – I couldn’t forget him. I saw how I had turned away. There was an opening in my mind and heart: a new willingness to see and to share. I thought of old stories of pilgrims who offered alms to a beggar only to realize that they were seeing Jesus. “Maybe,” I thought, “he is the Buddha in disguise, waiting patiently for me to show up.” I decided to follow the inspiration and to offer a donation. Once outside, I offered my full presence and the largest bill I carried.
That small intention opened deeply to the sacred. He, too, quietly paused. He turned and, now fully present himself, looked directly at and into me. His look pierced my heart as we quietly rested together in seeing and, indeed, in knowing one other. For just that moment, all barriers dissolved and we were one. All barriers. Dissolved. We each knew that we saw. It was a truly magical dip into the infinite, all the more exquisite because it was so clearly not about the details of the moment or our personal selves. It was a sweet moment of grace, in which we touched – together – into a simple and pure awareness. There were no separate selves to explain or defend. Words and thought blew away; there was only being. My heart sang with the seeing and the knowing of it. My heart sings in the telling, even now.
I think of Thomas Merton’s story of his experience on an ordinary day at an ordinary crosswalk in ordinary downtown St Louis. “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.”
It makes me consider: how very, very many of these magical and sacred awarenesses I miss because I think I know what I’m doing: times when my body or my mind is so busy and preoccupied with getting from a place where I used to be to a place where I (think I) will be next. I can so easily miss the pause, the being, simply…. here, where I can be available to receive the grace of seeing clearly, if only for a moment, what is most deeply real.
Unless I pause to truly see, I mistakenly believe that my mind’s constructions are real, that division is real. I’m told that all separation, all division is a mental illusion, a trick played by my mind. That we are one is the heart of my spiritual practice. It is, indeed, the fundamental insight of all of the great spiritual traditions: that the ordinary way that I perceive the “reality” of things is useful and functional, but it is not the end of the story. Deeper levels of awareness are available. I am reminded that these depths are not somewhere else; they are not in some other “better” world or in a “better” person. There is just this moment; full and loving presence. Here, now: this is my path.
Any moment offers a gift: “here it says, look here; there is liberation available here.” I wonder often what I am ignoring in my efforts to “get somewhere,“ as I inevitably try to stop or control the river of impermanence and of infinite causes and conditions. Where am I asleep, identifying with phenomena and holding on to some fixed notion of self or other? I am invited to look and look again more deeply, into and through the darkness, opening to receive goodness and light.
My first impulse to turn away on that ordinary Sunday morning, my struggle against the call of generosity was a signal, a blessing in disguise. Once known by me, it was invitation to open, to be, simply, present, available. All of my spiritual practice is, like that, an invitation to explore and discover how a wise and kind presence will allow these deeper levels of awareness to “miraculously” unfold: moments that I call mystery and miracle and grace.
Pause. Open. Receive. I am invited. We are invited.