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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life is a Journey


Sometimes the way before me seems daunting, perhaps even overwhelming.  I sense in myself that which would ward off the adventures that are offered to me; a temptation to succumb to fears and lethargy.  I recognize it for what it is and it slinks off to hide in a corner hoping that having seen it I will be satisfied with understanding it and not take action to counter it.  “Be gone adversary! (hypagay satana!)”. 

In a literal rendering of a Psalm I find that prayer is the only safe way to meet the challenges ahead of me, “But as for me, I am prayer” (Psalm 109:3).  Not merely praying, but at times of stress and great challenge to let prayer and the Presence of God so dominate my being that I can put my fears and lethargy aside.  To be prayer in this sense is to hide oneself at the very outset in the Presence of God.

Let me give you some basic principles for dealing with the problem.

O bone Jesu, exaudi me.
Intra tua vulnera absconde me.
Ne permittas me separari a te.

O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.[i]

            To be hidden in the wounds of Christ is to live in His forgiveness.  The starting place in every spiritual adventure is the acknowledgement that we are fundamentally needy.  The Psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength,”[ii] and, “I am shut in so that I cannot escape,”[iii] and again, “I am helpless.”[iv]  But more than that is the personal awareness that comes from contact with the Holy, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”[v]  So very often our human experience teaches us that we need a hiding place; that is, if we are spiritually aware, and those who are aware know that they need a hiding place.  

             If there is anything that will hinder adventure it is the sense of our own inadequacy and sinfulness; for that reason “Within Thy wounds hide me, Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.” If we are to take the adventure before us it is necessary to be hidden in the wounds of Christ. “Intra tua vulnera absconde me. Ne permittas me separari a te.”

Let me share with you four axioms about the nature of love:

“Love cannot be lazy.”[vi]

            “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”[vii]

            “We cannot live in love by being lazy.”[viii]

            “Love is meant to be lived to the full, not denied.”[ix]

            It is not enough just to consider the axioms about the nature of love and laziness.  There are times that what is needed is a decision, and an effort, to counter the inertia that would hinder us from taking the next step in our adventure, so let me add one further axiom about action:

            “Do two things every day that you don’t want to do, just for the exercise.”[x]

That is a small thing but it actually works.  Doing one thing isn’t quite enough to break the inertia. Doing three things might actually be a little too much challenge when we are stuck, but doing two things every day just for the exercise is something within our reach..

The prophet Jeremiah drew many of his insights from the world around him.  We read,

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  ‘Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel.[xi]

            Have you ever watched a potter at work?  Strong hands mold the clay as the wheel spins.  If the potter feels a lump in the clay that will spoil the pot, the potter will take a potter’s knife and scrape the clay off the wheel and move it to a side board where he pounds and beats the clay until the lump is worked out.  If the lump cannot be worked out with reasonable effort the potter throws it aside in a pile of clay to sit for a while before attempting to once more to pound the clay out.  Jeremiah observes:

And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.[xii] 

            Often our lives are marred by our own willfulness and we need to be remade; that is the very essence of the work of redemption.  It is also the nature of human beings to resist being remade.  After all who enjoys a good pounding, lumps or not?  Here let me add a caution.  Even if we don’t care for the idea that God, as the Good Potter, will pound out our lumps, don’t worry, life will do it anyway.  That’s just the way things work.  The human tragedy is our propensity for stubbornness.  Some people never surrender to the pounding of either God or life; they are like clay that is ultimately thrown into the refuse pile, never to be picked up again.  The Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah, doesn’t want us to miss His challenge:

Then the word of the LORD came to me:  ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the LORD.  ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’[xiii]

            You might find this all very alarming.  What helps me is knowing that He who offers to remake me, both created me and knows me thoroughly.  Again the Psalmist says,

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  [xiv]

An interesting example of God’s redeeming and transforming grace is in St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.  A slave named Onesimus has run away from his master Philemon who is a leader in the Church in Colossae.  Onesimus name means “useful”, but he was a useless and rebellious servant.  Onesimus ends up in Rome where Paul is living under house arrest.  Paul writes:

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.  (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) [xv]

            Paul enjoys the occasional word play, he says, that formerly he was Achrestos (Useless) to you, but now he is indeed Onesimus (Useful) to you and to me.  The intent of Paul’s letter is not that Onesimus be returned to slavery, but that Philemon will both forgive him and free him.  The challenge for Onesimus is getting out the door and heading for Colossae to meet with Philemon.  Onesimus received God’s forgiveness first, and then the forgiveness of Philemon; but we should not underestimate the risk that was involved. 

We also see in Paul’s letter to Colossae that Onesimus is charged with sharing with Tychicus the responsibility of telling the Colossians about the activities of Paul, and he calls Onesimus, “our faithful and beloved brother.”[xvi]  His restoration places him in a new position with a new adventure, living as a free man and taking a responsible role in the life of the local congregation.  That took both courage and the grace of God.

What was necessary for Onesimus to take the adventure before him?  He had to face his inadequacies and sinfulness.  He had to hide himself in the wounds of Christ and live in forgiveness.  He had to do two things he didn’t want to do; he had to go out the door, and he had to go all the way to Colossae to meet with Philemon.

A Prayer of Self-Dedication

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

[i] The Anima Christi

Anima Christi, sanctifica me.
Corpus Christi, salva me.
Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
Aqua lateris Christi, lava me.
Passio Christi, conforta me.
O bone Jesu, exaudi me.
Intra tua vulnera absconde me.
Ne permittas me separari a te.
Ab hoste maligno defende me.
In hora mortis meae voca me.
Et iube me venire ad te,
Ut cum Sanctis tuis laudem te.
In saecula saeculorum. Amen

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.
From the malignant enemy, defend me.
In the hour of my death, call me.
And bid me come to Thee.
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
Forever and ever. Amen

[ii] Psalm 88:4
[iii] Psalm 88:8
[iv] Psalm 88:15
[v] Psam 51:3
[vi] Jan van Ruysbroek
[vii] St. Augustine
[viii] St. Benedict
[ix] Dom Anselm
[x] Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
[xi] Jeremiah 18:1-3
[xii] Jeremiah 18:4
[xiii] Jeremiah 18:5,6
[xiv] Psalm 139:1-5
[xv] Philemon 1:10-11
[xvi] Colossians 4:7-9