The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

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The Power of Regret

No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.

I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.

The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:

Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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Bullying

This is Anti-Bullying Week, apparently, so we can expect lots of media interest in bullying and its tragic consequences. We are all against bullying in any shape or form, but I wonder whether any of us will stop to ask ourselves whether we have ever been, or worse still, actually are, bullies. We are quick to talk about being bullied, being victims of another’s rage or hatred; we are much slower to acknowledge the ways in which we try to force others to do our bidding. It may be a rather hidden form of bullying we go in for, scarcely noticeable to outsiders, but it is bullying nonetheless. If the other person won’t do what I want, I will force them. The weapons used may be physical violence, words, or more passive forms of aggression, such as silence or tears. It doesn’t really matter: the intention is violent, even if the action isn’t.

The roots of the word ‘bully’ are to be found in an old Dutch term for a lover or friend. Over the centuries, there has been a sea-change in meaning, but I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between bullying and love. It is a poor excuse to talk about bullying as inverted love, as though that somehow made everything all right, but the connection between bully and bullied is a strangely powerful one. Just as kidnap victims tend to form bonds with their captors, so those who are bullied often feel that they are reinforcing the bully’s behaviour. They blame themselves for what has gone wrong. That is nonsense, but bullies assume that it lets them off the hook.

I think one of the ways in which we could all make a positive contribution to Anti-Bullying Week would be to examine our own conduct. Inevitably, we will find things we do not like. We must bring them into the light of God’s love for healing and transformation. The message of the Cross is that bullying stops there. Once for all, Christ has taken on his own shoulders the sin and shame of us all. We can change; we can eradicate bullying from our own lives and, at least partially, from the society in which we live; but first of all we must acknowledge the depth of our need. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a bully’ is harder to say than ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ but it may be exactly what we need to say.

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Agincourt and After by Bro Duncan PBGV

Today is St Crispin’s Day and the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Given my ancestry, I have mixed feelings about that. Do I get all patriotic about the English victory, or lament the French defeat? I’m a peaceable chap, so my tendency is to lie doggo and keep quiet. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, at home anywhere — especially in a comfy dog basket or beside a roaring fireside — so I don’t go in for arguments or quarrels. That doesn’t mean I lack love of country; but it does mean I don’t have to keep proclaiming that my country is better than yours or running yours down because it isn’t lucky enough to be mine.

I think BigSis is on to something when she says love is never negative about others. Love simply loves. The only competition love seeks is to be first in doing good to the other. I ‘spect that’s quite spiritual really. BigSis says you just have to look at a Crucifix and all your complicated ideas fall away when you see what love really means. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’d do anything for Them. I’d forgive Them anything—anything at all. I think that’s what love means, don’t you?

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The Mirror of Love

Nostalgia is the most adult of emotions, and one of the trickiest to navigate. We can be inspired by the past or, more exactly, our version of the past, or we can be imprisoned by it. It can energize us or make us angry. Nostalgia is a kind of homesickness — and ‘home’, as we know, can be a good memory or a bad one, but it never lets us go. Our lives reflect the love and goodness we have experienced, or their opposite.

I wonder whether St Luke, whose feast we celebrate today and whose gospel has qualities we do not find in the other evangelists, had an unusually happy childhood. I have sometimes imagined him growing up among a host of sisters, indulged, teased and challenged by turns. Some of the interactions he records between Jesus and women have just that kind of friendly respect that men who are at ease with women display. His interest in Mary, too, suggests that he was fascinated by everything about Jesus and did not despise the family details.

Did St Luke grow up among girls? I don’t know, and my kind of speculation is historically inadmissable; but his gospel brings a warmth and humanity to the story of salvation that we need to remember. I am all for theology, liturgy, etc, etc; but we need to keep a lively sense of our home being not here but in heaven, from whence we await our Saviour, a Person, not an abstraction. We meet him every day in the faces of those we encounter. Do our faces mirror the love and respect Jesus has shown us? In other words, do we allow others to see Jesus clearly in us?

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The God in Whom I Do Not Believe

People often tell me why they don’t believe in God: he has not answered their prayer; he has allowed someone close to die; he does not do away with all the evil and suffering in the world; the Church is full of abuses. I have to agree that I don’t believe in such a pathetic God, either. I don’t believe in someone who is merely there to rubber-stamp whatever I want; who doesn’t take me seriously enough to allow me free will but wants me to be a puppet on a string; who only has time for those who are good. I don’t believe in a God who is capricious, small-minded and mean; whose existence can be ‘proved’; who is as finite as I am.

You see, the arguments against the existence of God that many people use are actually rooted in unthinking petulance. I asked God for something, but he didn’t give it (question: why should God give you what you ask?); God took away someone I love (question: what kind of love desires what is good for itself rather than what is good for the other?); I want there to be nothing difficult or cruel in the world (question: what kind of world is that?); I want the Church to be full of saints (question: isn’t the Church meant for sinners in the process of becoming saints?)

The God in whom I believe is a Person of infinite tenderness and love, of breathtaking beauty and intellect. Eternity will not allow me to plumb the depths of God, how much less this brief life on earth! But this I can assert with absolute trust and confidence. Whatever I believe about God is so much less than the truth of God. ‘As the heavens are high above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts.’ Ultimately, it is not a question of the God in whom you or I believe or don’t believe but of the God who is.

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St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?

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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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From Ashes to Roses (and possibly Back Again)

‘The time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet, and we know it. St Valentine in the secular calendar topples SS Cyril and Methodius from their place in the liturgical calendar, and with today’s unconfirmed reports that Oscar Pistorius has accidentally shot dead his girlfriend, the strangeness of this week, which has seen a pope announce his retirement from office, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday, continues.

But is it really so strange? We human beings tend to live life in linear fashion, going from one event to another, forgetting what has gone before unless it was particularly pleasant or unpleasant. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of the same coin. The past is only as secure as our own or collective memory make it; the future is unknown. We must live in the present, and that surely is what Lent drives home to us. This is the day of salvation, the moment when we must choose good rather than evil; and without being too fanciful, I think we can understand it in terms of a movement from ashes to roses (and possibly back again).

Yesterday we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and the desire for conversion. Today many a rose will be offered as a sign of love and devotion. If our repentance is real, there must be the same rhythm in our own lives, the dynamic of love and forgiveness at work. You may not have anyone to whom you would wish to offer a rose today, but I daresay there is someone to whom you need to say sorry. It may be someone living or someone dead; it is, at any rate, someone you have bound in the chains of unforgiveness and whom you must set free. Saying sorry may be as dust and ashes in your mouth, but it will make something beautiful flower in your heart.

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Asceticism: True and False

It might surprise you to know that there is a lot of false asceticism about. All that flesh-hating, afraid-of-the-body nonsense peddled by those who are neither ascetic themselves nor wish anyone else to be is seriously misleading. It is behind much of our simplistic ‘fat-is-bad, thin-is-good’, thinking. It makes people miserable when they ought to be happy and, because it is based on a false premise, prevents people from realising that they never can be happy while they subscribe to a lie.

True asceticism has nothing whatever to do with punishment, but everything to do with training and discipline. The Greek origins of the word are enough to show that (askesis means practice, athletic training). It is not to be identified with austerity, although a certain restraint is necessary since what we aim at is mastery over our appetites and any bad habits they may have led us into. St Jerome was very clear-eyed about this, saying that fasting, for example, should not be taken to excess as it is only a means to an end. It is a help towards attaining moral perfection, but it is not perfection itself. We could go further and say that fasting taken to excess is a sin, because it is a misuse of material goods and a profanation of the body, leading to pride, hardness of heart and a host of other evils.

Asceticism is always ethical, both in origin and in scope. There is nothing mystical about it, although some modern writers seem to confuse the two. Nor is there anything sad or heavy about it. Like all exercise, it is meant to invigorate, only for Christians it is a spiritual invigoration that we seek.

The chief asceticisms of the Rule of St Benedict are obedience and the common life, in which the use of time, speech, material goods, food and drink are all regulated. They are disciplines aimed at freeing the monk or nun from anything that might hold them back on the way to God. Self-will, self-indulgence, all the many forms of selfishness we prefer not to admit to, are encouraged by soft living and having no checks on what one says or does. (You do not have to be a moral theologian to work that out — just look at the gossip columns of the Mail Online, for instance, and you can see how sad and empty are the lives of many people who judge their worth by what they own and who walk away from relationships when the going gets tough.) But the point to note about the Benedictine asceticisms is that none is carried to excess. They are part of our training in the spiritual life and, as such, the renunciations they involve should be joyful. Benedict makes that very clear when he writes about Lent and our offering things up gladly, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I myself think asceticism began to go wrong when people began to go wrong about religion, mistaking misery for holiness and punishment for penance. Food, instead of being blessed, shared and enjoyed, became a temptation; wine, instead of being a source gladness of heart, became sinful; and once things become temptations and are regarded as sinful, we get them all wrong, too. Maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic if we hadn’t decided that food is innately sinful and therefore curiously desirable; maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about our drinking habits if we hadn’t let them run out of control because we associate the pleasures of wine with guilt; maybe we wouldn’t have so many broken marriages if we hadn’t got so confused about love and sex. I could go on, but I might end up indulging in a grumble, if not a rant.

My suggested remedy for many of the social ills that assail us is for the Churches to rethink asceticism and, instead of presenting much of our ethical and moral behaviour as a series of negatives, try to regain something the early Church understood much better. We are runners in a race towards heaven, and we need to get into training. In other words, we need to become true ascetics. The world has more than enough of the fake and phoney kind.

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