A number of important events have interrupted my reflections on St. Benedict’s teaching about humility. It is natural for many Catholics during Lent, especially of an older generation, to recall our sinfulness and seek effective ways to amend our lives. Although there is a guilt-ridden way to acknowledge our sinfulness, which is a dead-end, there is also a very liberating way to own our sinfulness and move forward to the resurrection. Perhaps the guilt-ridden way puts the responsibility on God’s judgment more than on my responsibility for my bad choices. If I accept responsibility for my sinfulness, my personal wrong-doing, my complicit participation in society’s sinfulness, I am accepting, too, the possibility of change. If I recognize a tendency in my thoughts and deeds that’s deadly, I’m recognizing that there’s also a better choice. It’s the possibility of a better choice, and that it’s do-able, that helps me recognize how wrong my sinful choice has been.
I believe that it was in this perspective that Fr. Stephen Verbest during our community retreat, could speak about us (or any monastic community) being a community of sinners. He was not dismissing us or condemning us. Once more, this brings me back to the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who went up to the Temple to pray. Like the Tax Collector, I need to admit the truth. What the Pharisee said about himself wasn’t misinformation. Yes, he really did all those laudable things but for whom did he do them? If he didn’t do them out of love of God and neighbor but did them to look good, even in just his own eyes, no matter how accurate the list of good deeds are, he had yet to learn the truth about himself. All that could stuff could simply distract him from his unattractive personal agenda. By contrast, the Tax Collector admits who he really is and admits that he’s settled for so much less than he could be. Only if I can admit this truth, can I ask God for mercy to restore me to his love for me–and for all his creatures.
Why can I believe that this is even possible? Because Jesus, who is the icon of the Father, tells me it is true. For the joy that is set before us, let us, like Jesus, endure all that we must bear of our fallen condition. That is the meaning of the cross Jesus bore; and that means that we do not bear it alone. Jesus shares our fallen state and supports us and, flowing from him, our brothers bear us along, even in a community of sinners. The self-righteous have no place in a monastic community, just as the Rule of St. Benedict is not for a moral elite. But why? Because we are truly brothers to one another in humility; we are at odds with one another in self-righteousness. When I truly know my own state before God, how can I condemn or have no mercy for my wounded brother? We are both wounded. We are all wounded. We can wallow in our infirmities or we can help one another. In giving real help–and not just “help” that makes me feel good about myself but leaves the person I “help” feeling put down–I am at one with the Lord who is really giving the help. That’s real self-emptying: not the little exercises and deprivations I plan for myself, but making room for Christ and getting myself, my satisfaction, out of the way.
At the same time, the healing love of God at work here should remind us of the joy that lies ahead. There’s more than moral satisfaction here: that can breed a sense of superiority and self-righteousness. There is the gift of joy from being back in harmony with God that is our goal. Isn’t that what St. Benedict meant about looking forward to the joy of spiritual desire for holy Easter?
from a Chapter Talk by Fr. Robert, 30 March, 2014