I did not
have to ask my heart what it wanted,
because of all the desires I have ever known just one did I cling to
for it was the essence of
to hold beauty in
— St. John of the Cross from Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West
What’s Important in Life?
Once upon a time, there was an elder who was respected for his piety and virtue. Whenever anyone asked him how he had become so holy, he always answered, “I know what is in the Qur’an.”
So when the old man died, they raced one another to his hut to find out for themselves what was in his Qur’an. “Well, what is it?” they shouted.
The disciple holding the book looked up from it amazed and said with wonder in his voice, “What is in this Qur’an are notes on every page, two pressed flowers and a letter from a friend.”
There are some things in life, whatever its burdens, however it is spent, which if we cultivate them will never die, will be the source of our joy forever, will sustain us through everything.
“Two pressed flowers,” beauty of the bloom, memories of past good days, remain in memory and heart long after the event has ended. Beauty scatters seeds of hope in us. It reminds us of time that was good for its innocence. It brings us face-to-face with the natural. It reminds us that, like the seasons, whether we want this present moment or not, it has a place in our growth that in the end will flower forth in ways we cannot now see.
“Two pressed flowers,” become the treasury of those moments in time when spontaneous laughter made a moment rich and unforgettable. They echo on in life long after the moment ends and ring a reminder to us of the incessant, bedrock beauty of life, however long or many its sad days. They remind us that there is in life, down deep, and unexpectedly, an essential basic and beautiful goodness that redeems all the moments we our selves overlay with greed or hatred or anger or self-centeredness.
The holy life cultivates those moments. They are the heartbeat of the universe. They make us glad to be alive. They hold us up in hope when everything around us seeks to drown us in despair.
They remind us, whatever the tenor of today, that we have known beauty once and can find it again.
“Notes in the margins of our scriptures” lift us above the mundane and make us look again at what we are, at what we are called to be. They require us to be reflective about what we do and why we do it. They remind us that there is a greater purpose to life than simply making a living. Reflection – this conscious comparison of the goals and hope of my life with all the possible purposes of life – gives us a new sense of the nobility of life. It stretches us to be everything we can be, in even the worst of circumstances. It refuses to remain mired in the search for power and security that isolate us from the rest of humankind.
Reflection on the great questions of life puts everything else into perspective. We are meant to be about more than money and social craftiness. We are called to be more than simply passersby in life. We are here to strive for the best in us, to reach into the center of us, to remember that we are decidedly human and decidedly more than that at the same time. We have within us the stardust of the universe, and we are on our way home.
Nothing smaller than the cosmos is meant to distract us from a God’s-eye view of life.
Finally, friendship – love – “letters from our friends,” touch us so that we might eventually learn to touch others. We come to this world from the moment of birth unable to function without the help of others. We grow, then, into that purpose ourselves: to care for those around us so that, caring for one another, we may all live secure in the knowledge that we are safe and wanted necessary and loved.
Our letters remind us that it is what and whom we have loved which, in the end, shapes the quality of our lives.
When all the stages of life have passed us by, these things alone remain: the spiritual treasure that stretches our souls to see what our eyes cannot, the remembrance of how beautiful life really is under all its ugliness, and the love of those around us who make the journey gentle as we go.
If the question is, what things are really important in life? The answer depends on what is in the Qur’an that is your heart.
To make the journey of life and cultivate none of those things is to squander our years. Anything less is pure chimera. We grasp for mercury and morass when we concentrate only on cosmetic beauty and transient power, for social connections and uncertain security. Those things are all real, of course, even necessary. They are part of all our lives at one time or another. But they deceive. They only come and go. They are running through our fingers like water through a strainer, even as we speak.
If the question is, what is really important in life? – the answer is only life itself, living it well, immersing it in beauty, love, and reflection.
— Joan Chittister from Essential Writings (excerpt from Welcome to the Wisdom of the World)
- Invisible Connections (The Beauty of Our Lives)
- Reveal to Us Your Sublime Beauty
- Seven Principles for Living with Deep Intention
- In Wisdom’s Path
- Choose The Deep Again & Again In Order To Live Fully
- My Journey to Wisdom