Candlemas, the Fifth Degree of Humility and Consecrated Life

The Presentation in the Temple

How good it is that on the Day dedicated to Prayer for Consecrated Life (monks, nuns and all the other kinds of religious there are today), we not only celebrate the Presentation of the Lord (olim Candlemas, or the Purification of Mary), we also read St Benedict’s Fifth Degree of Humility, which is about not merely acknowledging our sinfulness but confessing our sins (RB 7. 44–48). How St Benedict roots us in reality, a very concrete reality!

The practice of confessing one’s sins is a gift of the monastic order to the Church as a whole. Before monks popularised the practice, private sacramental confession was rare; and in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was a marked decline in the practice of regular auricular confession. In the last few years, however, there has been a re-appreciation of the value and importance of this sacrament. Some are still inclined to argue that it is outmoded, primitive psychology at best. To which I can only reply that, unless sin is now outmoded and human nature has undergone a sea-change, the practice of confession remains a healthy one. So what if it makes us feel uncomfortable? Oughtn’t sin to make us feel very uncomfortable? So what if we find it hard and disagreeable? Oughtn’t it to be unpleasant to have to face up to the reality of our dark side and what we are not only capable of doing but have actually done?

Nevertheless, what Benedict alludes to in the Rule is not exactly what we have come to identify with the sacrament, and we should be aware of the difference. The old monastic traditon of ‘manifestation of thoughts’ is often misunderstood. In essence it meant — and still means — going to someone who is endowed with supernatural gifts of wisdom and insight and laying before them something of what is going on in one’s soul, especially the temptations with which one is struggling.

The role of the spiritual elder is a delicate one. Benedict says elsewhere that ‘they know how to cure the wounds of others without revealing them or making them public’. That is a much rarer gift than many suppose. There also has to be a freedom from ego in the elder, and in the junior. It can be lovely to talk about one’s soul, lovely too to be perceived as a guru; but that is not the Benedictine way. What we bring to the spiritual elder, and what the spiritual elder gives in return, is an intense form of honesty. The light of Christ is brought to bear on the dark places of the soul and the important thing is not to get in the way of it (the spiritual elder) or hide from it (the junior). That is the humility that returns us to earth. Whatever little molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we have constructed for ourselves are overthrown. We stand on firm ground again.

 I like the idea of light flooding our souls as we read this passage of the Rule today, when we process with our candles in remembrance of the true Light that has come into the world. I like too the idea of praying for my fellow religious — young, old, middle-aged — on this day. This is a day for rejoicing especially in the gifts of old age, of fidelity and perseverance, and above all, dedication. There is nothing more fragile than a candle-flame, but how its brightness can pierce the dark! Please pray for us all, that we may have the grace of perseverance and do our part to bring Christ to others, humbly, faithfully, joyfully.

Note on the illustration:
Master of James IV of Scotland (illuminator) [Flemish, before 1465 – about 1541], The Presentation in the Temple, Flemish, about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment, Leaf: 23.2 x 16.7 cm (9 1/8 x 6 9/16 in.) Justification: 10.9 x 7.4 cm (4 5/16 x 2 15/16 in.), 83.ML.114.135v. Used under the Getty Open Content Programme, with permission and with thanks.

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Interior Rebellion and the Fifth Degree of Humility

Monday mornings can be difficult. For many, they mark the start of the working week and, curiously, if the weather has been bad over the week-end, the chances are that the sun will shine invitingly on Monday (though that has not been true of many Monday mornings in the U.K. this year). That is when interior rebellion sets in. It starts in a small way, with a little unvoiced grumble and slight downward curve of the lips, and works it way outwards through a touch of brusqueness and non-communicative grumpiness. It can get worse, but I prefer not to trace its course any further lest I be accused of giving you unwholesome ideas.

We all know what it is to rebel interiorly against something or someone. Monday mornings are small beer compared with some of the things that pull us apart. The stock religious answer, to endure, to ‘offer it up’, is all very well when we are in control of our thoughts and feelings, but the whole point about interior rebellion is that we aren’t; so we compound our guilt feelings with a sense of failure, and before you know it, what began as a little grumble ends in narcissistic self-condemnation — and that is the real spiritual danger. Anything which makes us focus narrowly on ourselves, which makes us think of ourselves as junk or failures even the grace of God cannot help, is fundamentally sinful. Yes, we need to acknowledeg ours sins and ask God’s forgiveness, but that is a very different thing from luxuriating in our own awfulness.

The fifth degree of humility which we read today (RB 7: 44 to 48) is less concerned with what we think of as sacramental confession as with the manifestation of conscience, of sharing with another the inner thoughts that drive our actions. It is presupposed that we share them with someone endowed with spiritual wisdom (Benedict assumes it will be the abbot), whose insight will help us get them into perspective. Not everyone is suited for that role, but Benedict stands firmly in the monastic tradition which says that what is brought into the light can no longer do harm. How and when we bring things into the open is, however, a matter for discretion. Just because we are struggling with an interior rebellion of some kind or other does not mean that we can or should blurt out the details to all and sundry or insist on X or Y listening to us now. Even rebellion needs an element of restraint.

The fifth degree of humility asks us to be that most difficult of things, a child in our frankness about ourselves, an adult in our dealings with others. Is that something worth thinking about on Monday morning?

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