Cross-Grained and Crotchety?

The late Bro Duncan PBGV managed to combine being a canine Grumpy Old Man with a droll and engaging character (cue misty-eyed moment). Those of us who lack the huge nose, whiskers and gently waving tail of his breed have a harder job convincing others that our testiness is transitory and our goodwill towards humankind more general and lasting. The sad fact is that as we get older our patience seems to wear thinner, and we grumble and grouse where once we would have been all bright-eyed enthusiasm and generosity. Or so it seems.

While I have been offline recently, I’ve been thinking about my friends and realised that the oldest among them are also among the nicest and kindest I’ve ever met. Cross-grained? No. Crotchety? No. It is I, dear reader, who fall into that category; and I wouldn’t mind betting that some of you do, too. There seems to be a stage as we approach old age, let’s say from about 60 onwards, when the more negative elements of our character come to the fore, and just when we had hoped we were becoming ‘nicer’, we found we were becoming nastier. What is actually happening, of course, is that we are beginning to see ourselves more clearly. Self-knowledge has always been an important part of growing spiritually, but it is very difficult to achieve. Living in community is a great help, for the brethren are always delighted to assist with fraternal observations and corrections, but not everyone has that advantage. The self-knowledge we seek is not to be equated with narcissism but with the kind of cool realism that acknowledges good points (grace) as well as bad (sin). As such, it requires effort and a humility only gradually acquired.

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 7.19–23, which should be compared with Cassian’s Institutes, IV. 39, is a very good way into thinking about ourselves in the light of God’s grace. The centrality of the choices we make and the difference between indulging our self-will (voluntas. . . propria) and doing God’s will (illius voluntas) is starkly contrasted. St Benedict does not beat about the bush but castigates the self-indulgence that leads to corruption. Interestingly, he attributes this to carelessness, inattentiveness, being, quite literally, negligent. He expects his monks to be constantly keeping watch over their thoughts and actions. There is no down-time in the monastery, no period when we can relax our guard. Those who prefer a Sunday-only kind of religion may find this surprising. Being always on the alert suggests strain, doesn’t it? Benedict would disagree, for the simple reason that, like St Paul, he sees the whole of life as being lived out in confrontation with the powers of this world. He ends this short section with a quotation from the psalms which I have always used as my own examination of conscience: ‘My every desire is before you.’ At the end of each day I ask myself, where has my desire been, what have I wanted? The answer very quickly shows me where I have fallen short. It also shows me, with radiant clarity, where the grace of God has intervened, where he has saved me from myself, as it were. I may indeed have been cross-grained and crotchety, but that is not the whole story; and I give thanks for that.

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Self-Will and Humility

It is noteworthy that Benedict devotes a substantial part of his first step of humility to consideration of the role of the will (RB 7. 19–23). It is significant that the word he chooses to express this concept is voluntas. That is not a neutral word. It is more akin to ‘self-will’. It means the desire for an unchecked autonomy which opposes even God himself. It is the desire to usurp the role of God — which is why it is so shocking and so deadly. Benedict’s advice is sharp and snappy: steer clear of it, and don’t be deluded into thinking that what we think best actually is best. We are back to needing right judgement again, but our unruly desires, our desideria, often lead us astray. Benedict, however, does not leave us plunged in despair at our own inability to help ourselves. He reminds us that God is always with us, and that our every desire is before him. I have always found that a good way of examining my conscience. What have I wanted today, where have I placed my desire, what has driven me? The answers can be troubling but they can also be encouraging. Grace is everywhere, even in the apparent chaos or failure of our lives. Recognizing that is humility in action.

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