Insisting on Having One’s Own Way: the PDHOW

Most bloggers will have encountered Persons Determined to Have their Own Way, or PDHOW* for short. In vain do we protest that a post is not about the subject they wish to ‘discuss’. The PDHOW sees everything as grist to their mill, an opportunity not to be missed; and if, at first, they don’t succeed in making us listen (and publish their views), they will go on and on until we are worn out with the effort of trying to reason with them. Gentle reminders that certain comments may be actionable in law are brushed away. Polite attempts to moderate the language in which their comments are expressed are angrily rejected. Even pointing out that that the platform they want to use is, er, financed by the blogger is dismissed as inconsequential. It can be even worse in Social Media where the PDHOW is ever on the look-out for an opportunity to ‘kidnap’ a tweet or Facebook status for their own ends, but at least there one can mute or hide the comments if they become too numerous or aggressive, or block the user completely if they are taking up too much time and energy.

It is all very well thinking of the PDHOW as a kind of human mosquito, a minor irritant, but the fact is that, like mosquitoes, they can sometimes do serious harm. The kinds of harm I come across most often are the imputation of base motives to others and defamation of character. It makes me uneasy because I sometimes feel pressured into defending those I have doubts about myself. Truth and justice, however, demand that one should point out that an allegation has not been proved or that there can be more than one explanation for what has happened. I daren’t give examples that occur to me because I know, perfectly well, that though I give them as illustrations they will be taken by some to be arguments — and I just don’t have time today for every PDHOW who may light upon this post.

I am encouraged in my thinking by today’s section of the Rule which is about not doing one’s own will (RB 7. 19–23). Benedict is writing about humility and the ways in which we go astray, but he reminds us all that thinking we are right does not necessarily mean we are. He ends the section with a sentence from the psalms that I use for my examination of conscience: My every desire is before you (Ps 37. 10). That neatly disposes of the idea that we always act from the purest of motives and have no hidden or even semi-hidden agenda. Dare we ask every PDHOW to think about that? And just in case you are congratulating yourself that the PDHOW is always someone other, allow me to let you into a little secret. We are all PDHOW at times.

*pronounced ‘peedeeHOW’ with the emphasis on the HOW.

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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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St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.

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