Today we finish re-reading St Benedict’s chapter on humility, RB 7, and, as always, it leaves me pondering how to apply it in daily life. There are many fine things in his teaching, many hard things, and many quite counter-cultural things, too. Indeed, the whole concept of humility is as unfashionable as it has ever been. Humility is a quality we like to admire in other people, especially when they practise it in regard to ourselves; and we don’t mind being singled out by others for the humility they see in us, especially when they err on the side of generosity. The difficulty comes when we have to be humble about matters the psalmist calls ‘too wonderful for me this knowledge, too high above my reach.’ That goes against the grain, and never more so, it seems to me, than when we are thinking about the Church.
It often amazes me how confidently some people assert that the Church should be this or that, or her pastors should take a particular line in respect of various questions. For example, in the Catholic Church, we are having a profoundly difficult debate about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia and the way in which it should be interpreted and applied. What is at issue is not so much whether the divorced and remarried should be admitted to Holy Communion as two quite different understandings of the Church, of authority and of the place of the Holy Eucharist in the life of the individual. In the Anglican Church — to an outsider at least — the current concern with inclusivity is in danger of making that seem the primary test of authentic Christian belief rather than belief in the Resurrection or the divinity of Christ. (Readers will understand that I have simplified in both cases, and that neither is the subject of this blog post: they are for illustration only.)
The question I want to ask is this: do some of our current debates and preoccupations mean that we end up remaking the Church in our own image and likeness? What matters to us, what we value, what we understand to be true (whether rightly or wrongly is beside the point), becomes the test we apply to the Church, what we say she should be proclaiming as true, conveniently forgetting that the Church is of divine origin and however flawed she may be because human sin and misunderstanding have marred her, remains, first and foremost, God’s creation, charged with proclaiming the truth of God, not our particular interpretation of it.
St Benedict’s concept of humility isn’t the wishy-washy, agree to anything, never question kind, but it does imply a readiness to search for truth and to be corrected; and it applies to the Church as a whole as well as to individuals and monastic communities. Most of us are a little lazy when it comes to that. The hard work of reading and praying is much less attractive than asserting our own ideas, but I think it is essential. It is also necessary that whatever conclusions we come to, they should be accompanied by charity and respect. Again, St Benedict provides a lead. Throughout the Rule, mutual respect, reverence for the other, is insisted upon. That is surely because St Benedict has understood something we can easily forget. We meet Christ in other people. We may think them tiresome, awkward or just plain wrong, but each and every one of them has something to teach us, if we will but listen. Ultimately, we desire to be remade in God’s image and likeness, not our own, and there are no short-cuts or easy ways to attain that. The humility of which St Benedict speaks is a life-long programme of growing conformity to Christ with many failures and false steps along the route.