Blogging Benedict: Humility vs Arrogance

Chapter 57 of the Rule says:

But if one of them [the craftsmen] becomes arrogant because he is skilled at his craft, believing that he is benefiting the monastery, he should be removed from that craft and not allowed to resume it until he has shown humility and the abbot tells him he can. (trans. White)

Apply this to your own work, particularly if you are good at what you do. Remember, whatever we do/create at work, at home, in leisure, is meant to work together with everything for the good of all, and not for our own self-aggrandisement.

Advertisements

Blogging Benedict: Humility (chapter 7)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are my notes on humility from chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict…

It is a universal monastic virtue. I’ll blog on that another time.

He uses an allegorical reading of Jacob’s Ladder:

That ladder is our life in this world which God raises to heaven if we are humble in heart. Our body and soul form the sides of this ladder into which the divine calling has fixed the different rungs of humility and discipline which we have to climb. (p. 24, trans. White)

The first step towards humility is to keep the fear of God in mind at all times. (p. 24)

And then Benedict gives a bunch of commands, ‘Do not forget,’ ‘Keep in mind,’ ‘Guard yourself,’ ‘Remember’ — God is watching us, and sinners suffer. This is less heartwarming than Phil Joel in the 1990s, ‘God is watching over you.’

Because God is watching us, we should keep the fear of God in our minds. This is similar, but a bit less optimistic, than the saying of St Antony the Great that one should keep the thought of God in mind at all times.

Benedict is deeply indebted to the tradition of watchfulness, of the eight thoughts, etc., that comes from the Desert and Evagrius:

One must … beware of evil desire because death lies in wait at the gateway to pleasure. And so Scripture gives us the following command, ‘Do not pursue your lusts’ (Sirach 18:30)’. (p. 25)

Benedict’s indebtedness to this tradition comes out at the fifth of his twelve steps to humility: confessing all wicked thoughts. Here I think of St Antony telling his followers to keep a journal of their thoughts. Elsewhere in the Desert tradition, we read of injunctions to confess all thoughts — good or bad — to one’s Abba in order to keep the thoughts under control. This develops in Eastern Orthodoxy into the tradition of the spiritual father, the geron or staretz, such as Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov or, in real life, St Porphyrios (d. 1991) and Archimandrite Sophrony (d. 1993).

The sixth step is very important — being content with your station, even if it is the lowliest. No raising yourself above others at any time.

Step 9 — the power of silence. We’ve been here already.

The chapter ends:

When the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’ (1 Jn 4:28) (p. 30-31)

I like this, because you begin the path of humility in fear, and end it fearless. Now, the fear of the Lord is a different thing from fear of Klingon attack or of cancer. But in the end, we are called to be in a relationship of love with God…

Judgement

Judge not, lest ye be judged. -Mt 7:1

Elder Paisios (1924-1994) warns us not to judge others because we don’t know their hearts and are so often wrong ourselves. When he was a young man, he sang in the choir at his church. One Sunday, there was a woman at church who couldn’t take her eyes off of him during the entire liturgy. She just kept staring at him. Paisios began to feel uncomfortable with all this attention from the woman. Her focus was to be on the liturgy, on God, not on young men in the choir! It was shameless the way she kept staring. He wished he could disappear and escape her gaze.

After the divine liturgy, Paisios was informed by the priest that the two of them had been invited for lunch — to the home of this very same woman! Paisios wished very much to get out of it, but there was no way, not when the invitation included the priest! Therefore, he reluctantly went to lunch.

After lunch, the woman said she wanted to show them something. She went off into the next room and returned with a photograph of her son — who looked almost exactly like Paisios! Her son had died in the war, and when she saw Paisios in the choir, it was like having him back again.

You never know what someone else is thinking, do you?

I judge people a lot — for various reasons. Most often because I’m smarter than you. Sometimes because I have better taste than you in books/music/art/films. Maybe because I’m of a better class than yours. Or my theology is more accurate. Or maybe I live by higher standards than you do. Or you complain too much. Or, quite frankly, you are way too judgemental. Really, I have all sorts of reasons to judge.

This story from Elder Paisios reminds me to tame the thoughts and stay humble, hard though that is!

Humility, the foster mother of charity (Catherine of Siena)

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.

So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.

Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:

No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)

I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.

Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.

We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.

But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.

It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.

Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.

It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.

And why?

Lack of humility, I think.

Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…

If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.

So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).

Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
Tomb of St Catherine of Siena

The Bible in the Ancient Church: Humility and Christ

Greek Majuscule Bible, ‘Codex Vaticanus’ (aka ‘B’); probably from Egypt during Athanasius’ lifetime (4th c)

My final talk on Ancient Christianity in Cyprus was ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ Most of what I had to say I have said here before. I discussed allegory and typology, bringing up Melito of Sardis and Ephraim the Syrian. I also discussed the literal meaning of Scripture, and read out a passage from John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans.

But what was new territory for me, really, was to discuss humility before Scripture and Christocentric interpretation.

What do the ancients say about humility?

The general attitude is embodied in a few sayings as follows:

Antony of Egypt once said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’[1]

Abba Poemen said, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.”

Isaac the Syrian, although a bit later than we are looking this week, once said, ‘No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding.’

Another story out of Egypt tells of a group of believers discussing a passage of Scripture. Everyone gave his own interpretation, speaking his opinion and mind as it came to him. The eldest believer there remained silent, however. One of the others said to him, ‘What about you? What do you think?’ He replied that he did not know, for he was not wise enough to discern the meanings of the Holy Scriptures.

I do not know that we should be so humble as that, but I do think the idea of approaching the Bible with humility is important. When we look at our many fractured denominations, not just between Protestant, Catholic, and various Eastern churches, but within evangelical Protestantism, each claiming that it has the one, true interpretation of Scripture, we should realise that perhaps some humility is in order.

Christocentric interpretation is probably even more important than humility in the face of Scripture. In his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasios of Alexandria, Egypt, writes:

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (ch. 8)

As far as Athanasios is concerned, the whole point of Scripture is to point towards Christ, either as shadow, type, prophecy in the Old Testament or as fulfilment, proclamation, expectation in the New. This is the general paradigm for reading Scripture.

So we read Irenaios of Lyons, a man born in Izmir, writing in the late 100s about Christ as the second Adam and then going so far as to make parallels between Eve and Mary; he argues that just as sin entered through the disobedience of one woman, so did redemption begin through the obedience of another. When we read this, we don’t have to agree with him. But I, for one, applaud his desire to apply the Old Testament to the Gospel.

If the Bible does not have supernatural significance, if the events of the Old Testament, the bloody, violent purging of the Promised Land and the bloody, violent worship in the Tabernacle, hold only historical value about the beliefs of the people of Israel, I have no business with the Old Testament; I would rather read Homer or Vergil. But if they are part of something bigger, part of the grand narrative of God’s cosmic outworking of redemption and salvation for all of humankind, from Adam to Christ’s Second Coming, and if I can see Christ’s fulfilment of all things in the Old Testament—that’s a Scripture worth knowing.

Furthermore, it’s an approach to the Old Testament that is approved by the New: Christ is the Passover Lamb, Matthew references Christ fulfilling OT prophecies, Christ refers to himself fulfilling statements in the Psalms, Paul refers to an allegorical or typological meaning of Hagar and Sarah, Hebrews sees the Tabernacle and Temple worship as shadows and figures of what has come in Christ, 1 Peter sees Noah’s Ark as a prefigurement of baptism.

These are the ones that sprang to mind immediately while writing my first draft. There are no doubt more. With this attitude and this nexus of thinking in hand, I think we can come up with better exegesis and better preaching and deeper ethics than we often do. And maybe we’ll even smooth over some disputes.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. B. Ward. Kalamazoo: 1975, Antony 7. See also Abraham of Nathpar, On Prayer 3, in Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Kalamazoo: 1987, 193; Martyrius (Sahdona), The Book of Perfection, ‘On the Office,’ 10, in Brock 1987, 206.