On Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

Some of the anecdotes concerning St Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, whose feast we celebrate today, have always delighted me. He made one of his proudest penitents walk through the streets of Rome carrying his cat as a way of deflating him a little, and he himself stood on his head in front of a novice he deemd too serious. Of course, if one is a saint, one can do things like that and not be thought either crazy or censorious. For the rest of us, it is a little more difficult.

Exhortations not to take ourselves too seriously generally come as an implied criticism. We are serious about something that matters very much to us, then someone comes along and says, rather dismissively, ‘Oh, lighten up!’ Or we are troubled about something and looking grave when others want to be joyful and carefree and we are told that we are party-poopers or bubble-busters. I think the answer is to read the seventh chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, On Humility, which we begin again today. Benedict is clear that shifting our focus from self to God will change everything. We will have a just estimate of ourselves, and there will be no need for the kind of prickliness that often accompanies too great a seriousness about ourselves. In short, being serious about God will free us from the wrong kind of seriousness altogether, and it won’t matter what others say because we will be grounded in truth and humility. There is no surer foundation than that. (cf RB 7.1–4)

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Humility and the Humble Gesture

Yesterday I did  not blog because we were reading RB 6, On Restraint in Speech, and I took Benedict’s words to heart and kept silent — not for any noble reason but because it seemed appropriate. Today, however, we begin the great chapter on humility, and there is so much rubbish talked about humility (when it is spoken about at all) that I think it worth saying something. First, we must distinguish between humility and the humble gesture.

Pope Francis is a master of the humble gesture, and in the U.S.A. right now he is showing how eloquent such gestures can be. That little Fiat 500 driving through Washington surrounded by huge security vehicles is a case in point. It was wonderful theatre, but theatre with a didactic purpose. He could not have demonstrated more clearly his rejection of luxury and excess, and he did so without actually using the words ‘materialism’ or ‘inequality’. (As an aside, I wonder what Donald Trump made of it all. Was he baffled, irritated, derogatory? Who knows?) Now, the problem with humble gestures is that they can proceed from genuine humility, or they can be mere gestures. In the case of Pope Francis, I certainly think they proceed from a profound humility of being but it would not shock me if, at some future date, I should learn that they were essentially a technique, a showman’s ploy. I say that because it is the business of a pope to teach, and like Benedict’s abbot, he must use every skill at his command (cf RB 2. 23–29). The sight of that little Fiat made me smile, I must confess, because it was witty as well as eloquent. It was an oblique comment on our love-affair, especially the U.S. love-affair, with the internal combustion engine and a lavish use of oil and petro-chemicals. Some of the major themes the pope has been addressing were expressed through his choice of vehicle, and in an age when the visual has such importance, it was nothing less than a little coup de foudre.

But what of humility itself, rather than the humble gesture? Why does it matter? What does it teach us — apart from making us more attractive to others? Humility grounds us in reality, in truth, and as such gives us a firm standing from which to act. It is, as St Benedict makes plain, and as St Bernard was later to observe in his De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (Steps of Humility and Pride), a grounding in God attained through prayer and sacrifice and constant failure. We learn about humility by being proud, by making mistakes, by discovering that we are not the ultimate or best judges of everything. The best antidote to thinking too well of ourselves is to be modest about our own abilities, recognizing them as a gift of God rather than something we have of ourselves or for our own benefit. Not, you notice, disparaging or belittling them or refusing to make use of them, but simply being honest about them. The best way of learning from our mistakes is facing up to them, again honestly, admitting that we were wrong to do such and such or to conclude so and so. As to judgement, I’ve probably said more than enough already this week, but there is one small point to add. Humility does not demand that we say we are wrong when we are right, nor does it require us to remain silent when there is a misunderstanding. Rather, humility urges us to regard truth, to explain ourselves more clearly perhaps, but always courteously and with the aim of furthering understanding. Humility is, ultimately, truth and we learn it best from him who is truth and humility personnified.

The important thing to remember is that the work of humility in us  — and I emphasize that it is a work, a process — begins with prayer, with constant attentiveness to God. There is no short-cut available. In the section of the Rule that we read today Benedict says that ‘holy scripture cries out to us’, clamat nobis scriptura divina. If we would be humble, if we would stand firm on the rock that is Christ, we must begin by listening to him and never give up.

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An Addition to the Three Rs

Time was when the building-blocks of education were the three ‘R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. They still are, but I think the time has come to supplement them with the three ‘H’s — a sense of history, a sense of humour and a modicum of humility.

You cannot have failed to notice how many people take their idea of history from the visual media. The presentation of Thomas Cromwell as hero in the televised version of Wolf Hall may strain the credulity of some, but Mark Rylance acts so well and is so convincing that I’m sure many will have concluded that Cromwell was basically a nice man, fond of his wife and children, and cruelly ill-used by villains like Thomas More. What about the systematic re-writing of history to be found in Jihadist videos? Or the thousand and one other portrayals of historical events and processes subtly coloured to argue a case or to interpret a past world through the lens of the present (think Downton Abbey, for example)? History is not an exact science, but it requires tough thinking and careful assessment of evidence. It is also multi-disciplinary. I’m sure it would help us not merely to read but also to decide what is worth reading in the first place (apologies to Trevelyan). I therefore suggest it should be the first addition to the three ‘R’s.

My second would be humour. You have only to look at Social Media or the pages of an online newspaper to see how many people have become so literal-minded that they fail to register that not everything is said or done with the same level of seriousness. Just as a sense of history gives a feel for period and the development of ideas, so a sense of humour is a great help in interpreting the words and actions of others. I’m not sure one can teach humour, but I think it would be worth a try.

Finally, I come to humility. It is no accident that today we read the twelfth step of humility in the Rule of St Benedict and find that humility — true humility — should be our constant disposition. I think sometimes we can exaggerate our own ability to solve problems or cure ills. If we did indeed have the solution to the world’s problems, the world would be beating a path to our door, but as it manifestly isn’t, perhaps we could pause and ask ourselves do we know all the facts, have we considered all the implications of such and such a course and, perhaps most important of all, are we in a position to judge?

Regular readers will know I have written this with a smile, but also with a grain of seriousness. How we approach the world, how we interpret the words and actions of others, how we manage to convey ideas of our own, matters. Get it right and there is peace and plenty. Get it wrong and there is war and division. Education plays a key-role in determining outcomes. As technology changes the shape of traditional education for ever, it is certainly something I’d urge thinking and praying about.

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The Problem of Arrogance

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.

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Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.

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Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.

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Delight in Virtue

Whenever I read what St Benedict has to say about the twelfth step of humility (RB 7. 62-70), a different word or phrase tends to strike me. This morning it was his observation that when we finally come to the perfect love that casts out fear, we do all that we formerly did ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue (delectatione virtutum)’. I am accustomed to noting that this chapter follows the Rule of the Master quite closely, that Benedict’s ‘good habit’ is not very far from Cassian’s ‘love of the good’ (amore ipsius boni), and that, like Cassian, Benedict introduces reference to the love of Christ (in Cassian it is affectus Christi) to end his chapter on a ‘high’. But it was that ‘delight in virtue’ which hit me today.

‘Delight’ is such a beautiful word, full of warmth and charm. Is that what we associate with virtue? For many of us, acting virtuously has elements of struggling against our inclinations, being good when secretly we would prefer to be bad — or at any rate, slightly less good than we feel we ought to be. Virtue has a brisk, cold bath quality to it: it is good for us and for others, but it is difficult to convince ourselves that it is anything other than a trifle unpleasant. We are glad when we have been virtuous; actually being virtuous is less appealing.

Benedict’s conclusion to his chapter on humility presents us with a real challenge. To find joy, delight, in being humble and in the practices that lead to humility, means a reversal of values. Self has to move from centre-stage; Christ has to become all in all. We shall never attain that kind of freedom by our own efforts; it has to be the work of grace. I think an important part of that is rethinking our vocabulary. All the words that suggest struggle and grim determination tend to focus us on ourselves; those that point to Christ are much lighter, happier, gayer in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Delight in virtue. That’s not a bad imperative for the day, is it?

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The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.

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Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

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Saints Not Celebrities

What the Church needs is saints, not celebrities. When I tweeted that this morning in reply to a comment someone had made, I was indeed thinking of St John the Baptist whose solemnity we keep today. I have blogged a lot about him in the past (do a search in the sidebar if you are interested in any of the earlier posts) so perhaps I ought to restrict myself this morning to a single thought. John could easily have become a celebrity: the wild holy man whom even Herod liked to listen to despite his uncompromising views could have become the first-century equivalent of some of today’s mega pastors. But he didn’t. He became a saint instead and met a martyr’s death. A passionate, joyful love of God marks everything he said and did. There is a tenderness and humility about John that those who concentrate on the garment of camel’s hair or the stinging rebukes to the corrupt and extortionate easily miss.

Love, joy, tenderness and humility: these are not qualities we associate with celebrities, but they are qualities that bring us closer to God. Locusts and wild honey are optional asceticisms. The real asceticism, the one that counts, is loving and faithful obedience: daily taking up the Cross and following.

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