Sunday, November 24, 2013

Come As You Are


Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
      Come to the waters:
And you who have no money,
      Come buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
      Without money and without price.   - Isaiah 55:1

            The only requisite for drinking at the wellspring of salvation is thirst.  We have no coin of our own, no works, no penitence, no disciplines, no righteousness, no attributes, and no credits of any kind that will purchase the deep draught of the water of Life.  Come as you are, come in your poverty, come in your grief, come in your abject helplessness and drink freely of the living water.  He did not come for the spiritually affluent but for those who are thirsty.

            Ah!  There lies the rub.  Have you discovered your need?  Do you think you can buy this lively water with your own coin?  He has said that, “No one is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11).  The only coin you need is deep thirst.  Come as you are to the banquet table of the Presence of God.  Bow humbly and drink.

            Our human condition is such that too often our need, our very thirst itself, is so sharp that it becomes all consuming and drives out the very the thing we need most.  We are filled with grief, filled with self-pity, filled with a sense of inadequacy, filled with helplessness and instead of turning outward to Him we turn inward and become focused on the causes of our thirst. 

The antidote is to surrender our human pain and frustration and begin to acknowledge that He who became one of us, did so because He loves us even when we cannot love ourselves.  This has less to do with emotion than with decision.  The simple acknowledgement that I am loved by the lover of my soul, whether or not I feel it, is the beginning of a step through our difficulties into His Presence.  The decision to accept that love is prior to the feeling that comes from living within that decision.  That decision to accept Divine love is a hinge that swings the door of our soul outward from introspective preoccupation with the causes of our thirst and outward into the light.  Drinking at the well is not a passive experience, but an active and ongoing reception of the love that is offered. It is an old mystical perception that in the desire is the fulfillment.  We must first allow ourselves to desire in order that we may be filled.

            It is not that we should avoid the knowledge of our pain.  What I said was that the acknowledgement that we are loved is a step “through” our difficulties.  We are to come as we are.  We can come no other way.  That acknowledgement of our realities makes possible the surrender of our pain to Him who alone can heal and deliver.  You cannot surrender what you do not acknowledge.  You cannot surrender that which you will not release.  Once you have acknowledged that you are loved, once you have acknowledged your pains and lifted them up in surrender you are already beginning to drink.   

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
            Come to the waters:
And you who have no money,
            Come buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.     - Isaiah 55:1

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Devilish Art of Distraction

One of our most common experiences in prayer is the periodic stream of distraction that removes our focus from God and places it on ourselves, on our own worries and concerns, and sometimes on nothing really relevant at all, just the usual rambling nonsense of the unfocused human mind. 

Two things lie at the cause.  First, most human beings would rather be distracted than deal with realities; after all how much time do we spend in everything from television, to movies, to sporting events, to computer games, to thinking about food and a whole host of other things?   Second, there is an Enemy.  Listen to what Screwtape, the Senior Devil, writes to the junior devil Wormwood in the Screwtape letters.

One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way.  The Enemy was at his elbow in a moment. . . . I struck instantly at the part of the man which I best under my control and suggested that it was just about time that he had some lunch.[i]

The simple distraction in this case is nothing more mundane than lunch.  The Enemy is Satan, or in Greek, satanas (satanas) which means Adversary.  While you may not be saintly enough to rate his direct and immediate intention, you surely will be tempted at the point of your weaknesses by one of the lesser devils.  That is the point of The Screwtape Letters.  When you start to pray a host of minor distractions will spring into action.  While they may find their root in your weaknesses, the role of the tempters is to use them to distract you from prayer.

St. Benedict also is aware of this temptation to distraction and in his Rule, he writes:

Let us consider then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.[ii] 

It takes decision and constant attention for us to sing psalms or pray in such a way as our minds are in harmony with our voices.  To put it another way; mind, heart, and voice all need to be aligned in singing psalms or praying. 

Because of our fallen human nature, we are prone to being distracted instead of dealing attentively with the realities that face us; even when that is the ultimate Reality, God Himself.  That is echoed in the very first temptation.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"  And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'"  But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. [iii]

Note that in this first temptation, as in every temptation, there is a Tempter. That Tempter is the Father of Lies.[iv]  We do not live in a spiritual vacuum. Nothing he says can be assumed to be true, and when a blatant deception won’t do he loves to resort to half-truths warped and twisted for his own ends. When he questions Eve the very question he poses is a lie.  The only safe thing that Eve could have done is refuse to dialogue with the devil.  Instead of answering the lie she should have said, “Get out! Satan.”

Implicit in the temptation is the simple fact that the temptation woos Eve away from Reality by playing on the points of her weaknesses, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  For Eve the temptation is threefold; the still contemporary temptation of good food, of things that delight the eyes, and the temptation to be like God, which if you think about it is a terrifying appeal to pride.  Taken together the underlying fundamental temptation is to put oneself first before God.   This is the classic summary of the three major sources of temptation and of distraction in prayer, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”[v]

For us the temptation may be any one of a number of distractions that draw us away from the task at hand.  Those distractions range from the lazy habits of the disordered mind, to our perpetual worrying over things we should have left in the hands to God, to that kaleidoscopic range of fears that afflict most of us at one time or another, and to the old hurts and resentments that should have been covered with the Blood of Christ and buried in the Tomb with Him. Of these latter things one of the Western Desert Fathers said, “If you have a snake or a scorpion, put it in a box and put the lid on it, and sooner or later it will die.”  All of these things put the self before God and His grace.  The remedy for dealing with most of these distractions is awareness and a renewed surrender to God and a rebirth of faith in His ability to control the things that we cannot control.

There are times when the things that come to mind are indeed things that need to be done; they just don’t need to be done in the midst of your time of prayer.  A simple way of setting them aside is to keep an index card by your Prayer Book and jot down in one, or two words only, the thing that has come to mind; having done that, set the card and that concern aside and return to your prayers.

St. Benedict instructs us to focus our conscious attention on God who is the ultimate Reality with renewed effort and deliberation. He says,

When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe! [vi]

            If you are going to borrow a lawn mower from your neighbour it best to go across the street, knock on his door, and get his attention before you humbly start asking for his lawn mower.  Humility is an essential.  If your neighbour is not present to you, you are not going to get much success following through on your request.  Yet, Christians all too often just launch into prayer without focusing on Whom they are talking with; all their focus is on their cares and concerns. 

Awareness of Whom we are praying to is a decision, and we often need to remind ourselves of that simple reality.  It is not that God is not always present.  Of course He is; it’s just that we are not always present.  That brings to mind the cocktail party syndrome.  Two people are talking at each other, but neither is listening to what the other has to say; instead each person is only attentive to what brilliant and witty thing he might say next after the other person has finished chattering.  Prayer is not a monologue directed at God, but a dialogue in which He, through the Holy Spirit, and through His written Word, has a lot to say to us; and if we are not listening He might just wait until we are.  Those who pray best are those who listen best and are clearly aware of just Whom they are talking with.

Remember the structure of Lectio Divina?  Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest.  Read the Word of God.  Reflect on its meaning and what He is saying to you in the passage.  Respond to His Word in Prayer.  Rest in His Presence.

Don’t ramble in your prayers or expect to pray for too long a time. Benedict instructs us that,

Prayer should be therefore short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.[vii]

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Harper-Collins, 1996), p. 3
[ii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 19: The Discipline of Psalmody
[iii] Genesis 3:1-6 
[iv] John 8:44
[v] I John 2:16
[vi]  The Rule, Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer
[vii] The Rule, Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer

Monday, October 28, 2013

Be Radiant

Scandrett Park, New Zealand

“Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.” (Psalm 34:5 RSV)

One of the fruits of Lectio Divina is deification.  In the Western Church we use the pale term “sanctification,” but deification glows with an inner light.  If you look to Him you will become radiant. 

Paul speaks of the same thing when he says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV).  The words “are being transformed” translate the Greek word for metamorphosis. 

The transformation is in process now as we behold the glory of the Lord in Lectio.  As we gaze upon the Lord in his self-revelation in Holy Scripture we receive into ourselves His likeness.  The four steps of Lectio Divina; Read, Reflect, Respond and Rest, bring us into the Presence of the God who loves us.  Read the text over meditatively several times.  Reflect on the meaning of the text.  Respond in prayer on the basis of the text.  Rest in the Presence of God.

Like Moses on Mount Sinai we look to Him and become radiant (Exodus 34:29-35).

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them.
32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

St. Gregory Palamas made a distinction between essence and divine energies, the former in immutable transcendence, the latter incarnate in humanity.  From Isaiah 45:19 “I did not say to the seed of Jacob, ‘Seek Me in vain’; I, the Lord, speak righteousness, I declare things that are right.”  

It is clear that You did not intend us to seek Your face in vain.  A reductionist interpretation, that would avoid the obvious surface meaning in favor of a spiritualized application, is not adequate. 

With Moses (Exodus 33:18) I cry, “Show me Your Glory.”  My Lord, show me Your face.  If it is not possible to see Your essence, the cry of my heart is at least let me see the “effulgence” of Your glory, the outraying of Your Essence in the face of Jesus Christ.1  

May I see Your glory as the eye sees.  Let me see You with a ‘spiritual sensing’ even as Paul was caught up to heaven, whether in the body or out of the body he did not know.  Let me see You as John saw You walking among the golden menorah of the Churches. 

Why? Because I love You?  Not a shadow of how You love me!  No.  Because You command it, and say “Seek My face,” and my seeking, which is commanded, will make Your heart glad even as it leaves me “rapt” in Your love.2

St. Gregory Palamas would remind us that in beholding not the essence of God, but the radiance of God we ourselves enter into deification and take on that same radiance.  It is the radiance of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration.  “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:1,2). 

In Lectio we kneel at the feet of the radiant Christ whom we adore.   St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “We receive into ourselves the likeness of whatever we look upon.”  This is true both of evil and good.  In the present context, as we gaze in Lectio at the radiance of Christ, we receive that radiance into ourselves and are transformed.  “Look to him and be radiant.  So your faces shall never be ashamed.”

In all of this one thing must be carefully identified.  Do not seek the radiance for the sake of being radiant.  Seek rather the radiance for His own sake, He who is the express image, the outraying, the effulgence of the Father’s glory.  He alone is to be worshipped and adored, for own His sake, and for no other reason.  “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV).                                                                           

Read   Reflect   Respond   Rest

1(John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews 1:1-3)

2(Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love)

Monday, October 14, 2013

“What Is Impossible With Men Is Possible With God.”

Is your dog pessimistic or optimistic?  The following article from the Guardian, Monday 11 October 2012 is illuminating.

      Optimistic dogs seem less prone to anxiety when left alone.

      Scientists have confirmed what many pet owners have long suspected: some dogs have a more gloomy outlook on life than others.

      The unusual insight into canine psychology emerged from a study by Bristol University researchers into how dogs behave when separated from their owners.

      Dogs that were generally calm when left alone were also found to have a "dog bowl half full" attitude to life, while those that barked, relieved themselves and destroyed furniture appeared to be more pessimistic, the study concluded.

      Michael Mendl, head of animal welfare and behaviour at the university, said the more anxiously a dog behaved on being parted from its owner, the more gloomy its outlook appeared to be.

      We know that people's emotional states affect their judgements and that happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively," Mendl said. "What our study has shown is that this applies similarly to dogs – that a 'glass half full' dog is less likely to be anxious when left alone than one with a more 'pessimistic' nature."

This reminds me of my uncle Harvey who was a self-confessed pessimist.  He told the following story.  “There were two brothers.  One was an optimist and the other was a pessimist.  At Christmas the boy’s parents decided to try to bring some balance to both of the boy’s outlook on life.  When the boys came downstairs on Christmas morning the pessimist found a live pony under the tree with his name on it, and the optimist found a basket of horse manure.  The pessimist said, ‘Oh, no!  The poor pony is going to die.’  The optimist looked at his basket of horse manure and said, ‘Oh boy!  Where’s my pony?”  What makes the story personally funny to me is that it was my pessimistic uncle who told it.

The question is, ‘How do you face life?’

We are faced with a variety of issues on three levels.  There is stress on the national political scene; there is stress, division, and uncertainty in the national church, and there is an assault on many areas of people’s personal lives. One of my brother clergy said, “My people are getting absolutely hammered.  Health issues, jobs, family problems, personal problems.”  Life always has had its ups and downs, but it is very hard for the pessimist to recognize that there are ups as well as downs.

Let me remind you of four basic sets of presuppositions that ultimately point us in the direction of being pessimists or optimists.

We either believe that:

God is, or He isn’t
That God communicates, or that He doesn’t
That Jesus is the Communication of God, or He isn’t
Miracles happen, or they don’t

Those four presuppositions will govern not only our understanding of Christian faith and theology, but also our view of whether or not human life is viable and has meaning.

When Christians believe that God is, they believe that He is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent. If you really believe that God is almighty, that He is all knowing, and everywhere, you are already pointed in the direction of optimism, for the one who believes that knows that there is nothing that can happen that God can’t redeem.

That is the underlying issue in the following story.  What do you think?  Were the disciples pessimistic or optimistic, and what does that have to do with Jesus question, “Why are you so afraid?”

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?" (Mark 4:35-41)  

How were the disciples looking at life?  Pessimistically or Optimistically?  If we are to live the life of faith we will need to see each of the challenges we face through Holy Eyes.  That is, we will want to see things from the perspective of our Lord, rather than see them through the fears of the world.  Let me warn you, there is such a thing as na├»ve Optimism; not everything is right with the world.

There is an interesting text that warns us about the nature of fear:

For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread (Isaiah 8:11).

Did you know that fear and the accompanying pessimism is like a flu bug.  It’s viral.  It’s catching and it can spread from person to person in a family, in a parish, and even through a diocese or a national church.

            In part the antidote for pessimism lies in our understanding of the nature of God:

Do you believe that God is Omnipotent?

Hear the words of the prophet
kheh-qat-tsar ruach adonai
“Is the Spirit of the Lord short?” (Micah 2:7).

Can your God deal with the things that confront you?

Hear what the Lord says to Moses:
kheh-yad adonai kheh-qat-tsar
“Is the hand of Lord short?” (Numbers 11:23)

Let your hearts cry out:

“Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you!” (Jeremiah 32:17).

Jesus Himself says to you:

“What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)

The key to power is the indwelling of Christ: Jesus gives us a direct promise of His power.  He says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Dame Julian Norwich in the 14th C gives that great confession: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Then she hears her Lord say: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me . . .. I shall make all things well.”
There is nothing facing you that God in His power can’t deal with.

There is nothing facing a parish church that God in His power can’t deal with.

There is nothing facing this nation that God in His power can’t deal with.

There is nothing in the way of challenges facing the national church that God in His power can’t deal with:

 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

We are called to step forth in faith.  We are called to walk on the water with Jesus:

There is one quote that for years has guided much of my thinking about acts of initiative:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” [i]

No matter what the issue is that confronts you, one truth abides:  God is, and He is Omnipotent!

Is it a matter of Optimism or Pessimism, or is it a matter of faith?  In the words of Peter:

 “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68, 69).

Copyright © 2013 Robin P. Smith

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Meditation on Humility

One of the great differences between Monastics and Oblates is that Monastics live in an environment where those within the monastery, by virtue of their vows, have committed themselves to fulfill the precepts of the Rule of St. Benedict.  The Oblate lives in a very different circumstance, and those around the Oblate are often not committed to the same set of values to which the Oblate aspires.  The Oblate strives to take seriously the call to humility, but humility is dynamically opposite to the aspirations of the world around him.

On the surface that sounds very formal, but it’s not.  It is often a painful reality, and the Oblate frequently struggles with the need for personal balance in settings that can be very conflictual, in the family, in the various places of employment, and even within the parish church.  The call to humility may sound as odd as Latin in the ears of the children of the world; but what is it that St. Benedict has to say to the Oblate who lives in less than ideal circumstances?

Chapter 7 - Of Humility [i]

Brethren, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: "Every one that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted" (Lk 14:11; 18:14). Since, therefore, it says this, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride.

For St. Benedict humility is the ladder that extends from this world to heaven; by humility one ascends to heaven, by self-exaltation one descends into the morass and disharmony of the world.  If you would learn peace, learn humility.  If you embrace self-exaltation you embrace the disharmony that governs the world.

The starting place is learning Godly fear.  The Book of Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”[ii]  The very idea that God is to be feared is antithetical to the children of the world, and especially to the children of the world within the Church.  According to C. S. Lewis, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day, 'a good time was had by all'.”[iii]  However St. Benedict says,

1.      The first degree of humility, then, is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes (cf Ps 35[36]:2), shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God has commanded,

That has a direct implication on the calling of the Oblate as well as the Monastic.  To assume that the Monastic has less temptation is to gravely underestimate the temptations that beset the Monastic.  Temptation is a universal experience.  Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”[iv]  Monastic and Oblate alike suffer temptations.

Therefore, in order that he may always be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother always say in his heart: "Then I shall be spotless before Him, if I shall keep myself from iniquity" (Ps 17[18]:24).[v]

The second degree of humility introduces us to a central dynamic of the spiritual life.

2.      The second degree of humility is, when a man loves not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carries out that word of the Lord which says: "I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me" (Jn 6:38). It is likewise said: "Self-will has its punishment, but constraint wins the crown."

The surrender of the will is easy when there are no immediate circumstances that overwhelm either Monastic or Oblate.  It is difficult, very difficult, in the midst of an impending conflict where the desires and pressure of the world around him[vi] call for a surrender of one’s material possessions, pride, and relationships.  The Monastic at least theoretically has already surrendered such things in taking his final vows. 

3.      The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says: "He became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8).

Here is the crunch.  What St. Benedict wants us to do is to surrender our wills in the concrete circumstances in which we live.  That means treating the boss respectfully even when we disagree with him.  Within a larger context it means abiding by the rules of the various societies to which you may belong.   There is an exception, if you are a member of an organization whose rules run clearly counter to the will of God, you have a choice; sell out your beliefs, or get out, or in some cases be a martyr. 

It also means by extension listening to one’s wife or husband instead of immediately leaping into argument.  What is at stake is no less than the issue of control.  If you insist on being in control you will never find peace until you have in one way or another quelled everyone in your environment.  Frankly, that’s not going to happen.

4.      The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, and  even though injuries are inflicted, he accepts them with patience and even temper, and does not grow weary or give up, but holds out, as the Scripture says: "He that shall persevere unto the end shall be saved" (Mt 10:22). And again: "Let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord" (Ps 26[27]:14).

St. Benedict doesn’t want to leave this surrender on the higher plane of obedience in greater things, but on the everyday give and take of life.  It’s like the old joke, “My wife and I share all the decisions; she makes the small ones, I make the big ones.  She decides where I’m going to work, where we are going to live, how we should spend our money, and how we should discipline our children.  I make all the big decisions, like World Peace, what the President is supposed to do and major things like that.”  It is most often in the smaller things, the everyday things, that the issues of control test our willingness to live in surrender.  Those are the decisions that should be shared by the husband and wife.

5.      The fifth degree of humility is, when one hides from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesses them. Concerning this the Scripture exhorts us, saying: "Reveal your way to the Lord and trust in Him" (Ps 36[37]:5). And it says further: "Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever" (Ps 105[106]:1; Ps 117[118]:1). And the Prophet likewise says: ‘I have acknowledged my sin to You and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and You have forgiven the wickedness of my sins" (Ps 31[32]:5).

There are two things at stake here.  The first is complete openness to God.  We should not live in the illusion that we can hide anything from God, nor even from ourselves.  That is the point of confession.  In order to make a good confession we must first admit to ourselves the very things in our lives that we are most embarrassed about, and then, lest we live in guilt, confess these things to God trusting in the Sacrifice of Christ that cleanses us from sin.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[vii]

Within the context of a Monastery or Abbey, the Superior has the responsibility of hearing Confessions.  Oblates come from many backgrounds and for some Confession to God in the presence of a Priest may be something we don’t believe in.  On the other hand, the question must be asked, “Why not?” 

The Book of Common Prayer gives the following advice,
If, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then 
go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest,
and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of
absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal
of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the
strengthening of your faith.[viii]

My solution is, try it once, even if you don’t like the idea.  There is an underlying dynamic here that should be recognized.  If we live with secrets we end up living with hidden guilts that can destroy our sense of peace and well-being.  Regardless of what you believe about making a Confession there should be at least one Christian person in your life from whom you hide nothing.  Note that I said, “one”.  Perhaps two if you are a very lucky person; but most often more than that is foolhardy.

6.      The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holds himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: "I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before You, and I am always with You" (Ps 72[73]:22-23).

Do you need to have everything in your life and environment perfect?  Beware, that is a manifestation of the temptation to control.  There is a delightful story told by C. S. Lewis,

She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sign and a smile "Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast". You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others.[ix]

The underlying issue in this type of gluttony is the desire to control.  The moral of the story is be content with what you get, even if your steak turns out medium instead of medium rare, and a thousand other little annoyances that niggle at the average person.  St. Benedict points out in this context that we are not all that perfect in the things we do; we are sometimes bad and worthless workmen.  Recognizing that reality, we ought to relax a little when things aren’t perfect in our environment.

7.      The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declares, but also in his inmost soul believes, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 21[22]:7). "I have been exalted and humbled and confounded" (Ps 87[88]:16). And also: "It is good for me that You have humbled me, that I may learn Your commandments" (Ps 118[119]:71,73).

St. Benedict has a way of digging in on a point until we squirm.  Considering our frustration with the imperfect things in our environment; we ought to recognize just how lowly and vile we can be.  That ought to sober us up when we are in a critical mood, even if nothing else will.

8.      The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk does nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.

Here St. Benedict circles around to obedience in the context of the rules of a monastery. For the Oblate there is a direct application to obedience in the context of the local parish.  “Oh, Oh!  Good grief!  Did a Priest just tell me that I ought to be obedient in the context of the parish where I make my spiritual home?”  Yes!  Again, there is an exception, if you are a member of a parish where those in authority run clearly counter to the will of God, you have a choice; sell out your beliefs, or get out and find a place where you can obey.  I won’t say, “in some cases be a martyr”, because that will make you a positive nuisance and it won’t do anything but cause unnecessary conflict in the place where you should be making your spiritual home.   For your own sake you ought to belong to a parish where you can obey; it’s essential for your spiritual health.

9.      The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholds his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence he does not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture shows that "in a multitude of words there shall be no want of sin" (Prov 10:19); and that "a man quick to speak is not established in the earth" (Ps 139[140]:12).
Here, and in the next step, St. Benedict comes around to the quality of interaction that we have with those around us.  Oblates don’t live in Monasteries, we live in family settings.  One of the great perils of being quick to speak is manifested in what I call the Cocktail Party Syndrome.  Two people are talking together, neither is listening to the other.  When one is speaking, the other instead of listening, is thinking about the witty thing he might say as soon as the other person is finished speaking.  The rule for Oblates is listen and respond, don’t be thinking instead about yourself and how witty or wise you might be.

10.  The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: "The fool exalts his voice in laughter" (Sir 21:23).

When St. Benedict warns about being quick to laugh he is offering us a strong shield against compromising ourselves as Christians.  Not all jokes are funny, some are disgusting, and others demeaning.  There is a story told about Don Rickles.  Frank Sinatra comes into a club where Rickles is performing, and Rickles says, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, pull up a chair and hit somebody.”  Funny or not, that kind of humour is demeaning.  Try not to laugh at it.

11.  The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaks, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."

Here is the other side of the coin.  Don’t be the perpetrator of that kind of humour; use restraint instead.  I’ve bitten off more than one joke because speaking it wasn’t appropriate in a certain setting, even when someone else says, “Tell the joke about the Oblate that . . .”  There is a positive direction just as well as a negative one.  Think before you speak and answer thoughtfully and with humility.

12.  The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always lets it appear in his whole exterior appearance to all that see him.

Oblates differ from Monastics in several ways.  One of them is that Benedictine Monks and Nuns dress in black cassocks, at least traditionally.  Oblates spend a lot of money, time and effort looking the best they can.  That latter is not the problem.  The problem is that when outer appearance is so important that the Oblate is driven to trying to look better, flashier, sexier, or more affluent than others.  Simply put, don’t be a show-off!

Let me modify the conclusion to apply to the Oblate:

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the Oblate will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18).

In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed with fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue.

May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.

[i] The Rule: The only online copy of the Rule is in rather antique English, so I have taken the great liberty of mangling it in more modern English.
[ii] Proverbs 1:7
[iii] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
[iv] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[v] The Rule
[vi] His, or Her.  I refuse to be awkward by fencing around with what some think is socially acceptable.  I wrote this primarily for myself, and secondarily for everyone else, and I am not a His/Her.
[vii] 1 John 1:8-9  
[viii] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 317
[ix] C.S. Lewis, online Screwtape Letters, chapter 17

 Copyright © 2013 Robin P. Smith