Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

Sunday Chapter talk on humility

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You can’t escape the journey that is our lives.  If it is attempted things usually get worse.  That goes for life in the secular world as well as for those who are in religious and monastic life.  Below is a talk I presented to the community at Sunday Chapter on an aspect of Humility as presented in the Ruse of St. Benedict.  I speak often in the second person, but in reality, it is about my own struggles and healing on my Monastic Journey.  We each have our journey to complete and with God’s grace, we shall all arrive home.  Let us pray for one another and hopefully grow in compassion for all of our fellow travelers.

Humility and Monastic Life

I read once from the book “The road less traveled” by Scott Peck that people enter into community life, get married and even enter their workplace for different reasons.  One reason is to ‘fight’.  I found that intriguing that he would put it so bluntly, but I believe true none the less.  Of course by ‘fighting’ he did not mean physical confrontation but the daily give and take in life that we have with others and the inner struggles that this can bring about for most people.  It sounds challenging, but when looked at objectively it is true.   We can be opaque to one another, unreadable even.  Yet we have to deal with each other on a daily basis.  In monastic life, this can be a cause of deep suffering for many.  It is easy to look at the splinter in my brother’s eye than to see the log in my own.  

Chapter 7 of the ‘Rule of St. Benedict’ deals with humility.  In the first paragraph in that chapter, Benedict quotes this scripture verse: “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,  but the one who humbles himself shall be exalted "(Luke:  14:11)

Humility roots us in reality and keeps us aware that all is seen before God….in other words we are naked children before him.  “Let him recognize that God is always looking down on him from Heaven: that all his actions, wherever he may be, and in clear view of the eye of God, and are at every hour presented to Him by His angels."

A little further down Benedict says: "Calling to mind the Scripture, we have good reason to fear  doing our own will:'  “Sometimes a way seems right to a man,  but the end of it leads to death!” (Proverbs 16:25)

They are dire warnings, yet even if they make us uncomfortable (perhaps they should) it is merely stating what is true.  What is that truth?  Our lives are important.  Our choices do have a deep profound affect on our inner lives and can lead to a quenching of love in our hearts.  This is a spiritual death, for in the Epistle of John it says that when we hate or lack love we are actually in darkness.  It brings to mind that the battle is not with others, but is in fact with ourselves.   When ‘self-knowledge’ is present, we do not treat others unjustly but keep the struggle within.  For we understand our commonality, that we each have a lot to deal with and can often fail.

I believe that the battle engaged in by many in monastic life is the letting go of “I do it my way”, as the song goes. I am of course speaking of my own struggle.   Often when a brother annoys me, or angers me, I believe two things are at work.  The brother, to use a 12 step saying (more or less):  Is showing me my inside by reflecting back to me his outside”.  It is not conscious, this is natural and instant.  When we seek to grow in humility we can begin to ask ourselves questions about our reactions towards our brothers.

We learn humility by ‘being humbled’, not by being insulted or humiliated.  When that is forgotten, it is then that we wound ourselves, often more grievously than truly understood.  More often than not, when I judge someone harshly, I am trying to distance myself from their pain and raw humanity.  It can be a form of numbing.  For in the end, sin is seeking to escape the reality of how hard life is, the struggle involved, as well as why we actually came here.  We are not called to close up and put up barricades, but to open up to one another and not be afraid of the messiness that involves.  

The fourth step of humility is this: “When being obedient cause things to become hard, contrary, or even if wrongs re done to him, for him to nonetheless embrace the suffering with a quiet conscience, and not to grow weary, and not give in to them, since the Scriptures says:  “but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mt.  24:13)

What does it mean “not to give in to them”?  I would say it is our own inner voices, our reactions and our judgments that must not be given into.  These habitual reactions, from my own experience, is that I become anxious, disturbed and read into events things that are not there.  So the struggle is with ‘me’ not with my brothers much of the time.  Speaking with another brother to get to the bottom of the matter is another issue, but often necessary in order to learn how far off we can be when we judge others.  Judgment without clarification is a form of ‘personal infallibility, which leads to gossip, slander, and calumny.  These wrongs because they are so common, lead to their severity often being overlooked.  Unless of course, I am the victim, then I see and experience it fully.

Openness with the Abbot, which can be very difficult, is one way to offset the harm we can do to ourselves as well as to others and the community.  Our relationship with authority figures can be one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.  If it is not, then both the abbot and the monk lose out.  

Humility allows us to understand that ‘doing it my way’ may not always be the best way at all.  We all have insights about one another; we see each other foibles and shortcomings, often before the person being observed knows.  Or in fact, may never know. This, of course, goes for me as well.  Many in this room see things about me that I am unaware of.  Yet I see them in others and will often react instead of responding.  If this is not learned, how we see our reflection in other community members, then the monastic life can be one long drawn out ordeal that can lead to bitterness and isolation from the life of the community.  

We are called to love ourselves, others and to serve one another.  In Monastic life, we have our own unique ways of doing that.  All forms of service to the community are very important, from being abbot to mopping the floor, when this is forgotten then someone else is burdened and the one who burdens does harm to his own heart and soul, even if not believed or understood.  It is a form of self-wounding, which in the end that is what sin is.  I can wound myself and then blame the community for my pain and feelings of isolation.

To seek to grow in humility is also to seek inner healing, for when we learn to have compassion on ourselves, then we can also show compassion and empathy not only for community members but also for those who are in our far past and are the origin of some of our struggles.  So as we grow in humility we can be those who heal and not strike out and wound as we were wounded.  For men, this is often undervalued when it comes to others, however, another matter when we experience it ourselves.  Empathy is learned from experience.  It is the often gut-wrenching pain that others can cause me without realizing it that helps me to see how it can distress those I live with when I treat them in a harsh manner.

When Jesus says that we have to become little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven……  Could he be in reality telling us what we in fact are….children….and that what we often take for being a ‘mature adult’ is in reality, a form of childishness?   Being in control, dominating, always being right, is that really what we are called to be.  Children are childlike by nature and most adults love that.  They make us smile and with children we drop our defenses fro a least awhile.  Of course, there is nothing remarkable about this, it is in their nature. Until of course, life happens and they become ‘adults’, some may be so called ‘mature adults’.  The true miracle is when ‘mature adults’ become childlike and enter the kingdom of heaven while on earth.  It is a long process of death to self which is in reality, the doorway to a broader reality that is true adulthood I believe.

Br. Mark Dohle, OCSO
Holy Spirit Monastery

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