Maria Zakharova, Albert Zakharov
(Talk for WCCM LatinAmerican Oblate Retreat 2022)
Probably, we all know well what hospitality means and that it is an important spiritual value. And instead of once again talking about the literal meaning of this quality, we will tell you a few stories related to our daily experience and oblate way of life. May these stories help us to expand our understanding of the connection of hospitality with the mysterious journey that we and divine love make together in the space of being.
Now we, in Ukraine, are going through one of the most serious crises of our lives – war. The war, which has been going on for almost half a year, has become the most terrible conflict in Europe since 1945. Since February 24, when the war entered our lives, along with Russian troops and cruise missiles, we personally, and our local meditation community, have focused on helping refugees. Support from meditators around the world has enabled us to start a new project – the fund for help refugees. We named it “Listen”.
We help people affected by the war. We help with the simplest things – food, medicine and clothing. And, also, we try to give people spiritual support – a medicine for the mind and heart, which have lost unity and integrity due to stress, suffering and fear. Together with financial support, we try to share the practice of meditation and the spirit of the Benedictine community.
Recently, together with our Lviv WCCM group, we organized a retreat – a meditative hike to mountains. We invited several refugees from cities near frontline, who found shelter in the Lviv’s Benedictine monastery. Refugees are people whose faces are like a book where you can read everything they’ve been through. Loss of home and job, months of living under the sounds of explosions and shelling, hunger and even face to face with images of death… All this settles on the face with some special shadow – the opposite of the light emanating from the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Three adult women from Slavyansk, a girl from Donetsk and a young guy from Kharkov accepted an invitation to the retreat from us. In the monastery, where we periodically brought humanitarian aid, they received temporary shelter, food and clothing. But they obviously continued to need the main thing that the war took from them – inner peace.
In recent months, their attention has been focused on the tragedy of external events. The path through which attention could return to the depths was completely blocked by fear, pain and distraction. We can compare this state of mind with the roads of cities in eastern Ukraine, burned and blocked by Russian military equipment.
Going to this retreat, on the one hand, we understood that we had to teach our guests something important and new for them. On the other hand, we remembered that we must be ready to learn from them. Through us, the Presence of God speaks in the words of John Main and St. Benedict – “Keep calm, repeat your mantra”, “Listen, come back.” But the guest who comes to us also comes as Christ, if we are ready to “receive”, “listen” and “look”.
The retreat had a main theme, “Return to the Depth”. Our refugee guests were not particularly competent in religious matters, so we chose the simplest and most universal way to talk about God – talking about the Depth, and moving from words to silence.
The route of the hike gradually climbed the mountain range, and as we made our way up, we alternated walking meditation with sitting meditation and the practice of silent concentration on the road. Kilometer after kilometer of the ascent cleared our heart and mind, making our group a space of unity – compact on the outside and infinite on the inside.
Watching our refugee guests, it seemed to us that metamorphoses were taking place with them, which seemed to be an echo of the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Their faces brightened and filled with light – and the nature of the mountain range around us shone with the same light. The fear of anticipating missile strikes, the affective habit of checking the news on the smartphone every minute, the numbing memories – all these blocks of ice have dissolved, giving way to a unifying experience of silence, peace and simplicity.
We did another meditation hike for two refugees, a young couple from Kyiv, and this hike also taught us lessons about the importance of attention. A refugee girl who climbed the same mountain route with us was at first not overly impressed with the views. Her attention was captured by memories of the storming of Kyiv and worries about tomorrow. Already at the top of the mountain we meditated together sitting for 25 minutes. She later said that it was only after meditating on the mountaintop that she could truly see the mountains and forests that surrounded us.
Then, when we went down the mountain and went to the station to wait for a train to Lviv, we met with a family of refugees from Nikolaev. Having got acquainted with them, we offered them the help of our fund and took their coordinates. After a couple of days, we sent them several boxes of food, medicine, and clothes for the children. Later, one of these refugees, a mother of two, wrote to us that this help of our Community was an important experience for her in meeting the Divine Presence. She said, “I had never thought about God before and didn’t have much faith. But when I suddenly met you at the station and received help, I realized that God exists.”
Mindful participation in reality teaches us what reality really is. And in this sense, meditation is one of the easiest and most universal ways to learn. When we meditate, we do not give names and descriptions to reality. We take part in reality, we are present in it more and more fully. This is the path of attention, and it is very simple, but not easy at all. The pure attention that is released in us during meditation can turn the rest of our life after meditation into a real adventure.
Every time the timer chimes and we rise from our pillow, reality deepens and fills with subtle light, while remaining essentially the same. Like the faces of refugees climbing the mountain on a hike. The attention of meditation does not give us definitive answers; rather, it broadly and permanently opens before us key questions that we can only answer in the language of experience and our own changes: “Who am I?”, “Who is my neighbor?”, “Where is God?”
These questions in the Gospel were revealed to the lawyer, who probably also stood on the threshold of contemplation: “Who is my neighbor? Where is my neighbor? Where can I look for him/her?” Jesus gives the answer: “Become what you seek and strive for. Be neighbor to others.” This basis of Jesus’ teaching is often reminded to us by Fr. Laurence and John Main – God cannot be found by us as an external object “here” or “there”. “No one has seen God.”
We find God as Love by changing for the better and participating in the lives of other people. The kingdom of God is within us and between us. Searching for God is an adventure both for us and for Divine Love. We find this Love both in ourselves and in others on the path of personal transformation and in the life of the community. Divine Love finds itself in us, manifesting itself in the best that can happen between us and in us.
This two-way adventure in which God and man find themselves in each other is described by Master Eckhart: “When we are completely out of ourselves, then God is completely out of Himself. What remains will be a simple unity. God is no further than the door of our heart. He stands and waits until we open the door. He needs us a thousand times more than we need Him.”
In the meditative mountain hike, between periods of meditation, we trained to look at each other and at the surrounding nature, seeing not only the external, but also the internal – the depth. An inattentive glance sees only the name of flower varieties, their quantity, chemical processes. If we look deeper, we will see beauty and harmony. Also, our attention, nurtured by meditation, will help us to see in people around us the light of the Divine Presence. When we see it in others, we see it in ourselves. And then a stream of Love will flow between us, and this stream is God.
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