A large part of humility is constant forgetfulness of one’s achievements. There is a strong natural tendency to feel good about accomplishing good things. This, in itself, is not bad. But it sets up a fertile medium for the growth of pride and of self. To take up the cross and be a suffering servant one must actively strive to accomplish things not of one’s own will but of other’s. To achieve measures of success in such a life is a good thing, and to feel good about accomplishing good things is also good, but, so as to not overthrow humility, the ordering of this feeling (pride) must be properly directed.
When we feel good by attributing the origins and results of our achievements to ourselves and retain the memory of it to recall as self-consolation we are saying to ourselves: ‘Look at me. Remember what I did? I’m a good guy!’ To whatever accomplishments we might attach such feelings we, in the first instance, must recognize it and assign it to Your action in our lives and thank You for it. After feeling good that You would so favor us we must, secondly, not revel in it but forget it and move on.
In the realm of analogies I still like the scriptural one about your right hand not letting your left one know what it’s doing. Things that might fight humility because they are sources of pride and conceit are more easily put down by silence and indifference. This is not to say that some interior residuals of pride vanish, or even that the danger of being proud that we silently sublimate them vanishes – but cultivating a silent indifference helps detach self. If we can really buy into being silent about our good deeds and achievements, if we can actually cultivate an honest indifference toward them that does not deny the need for them, if we can accept instrumentality but not originality for them, the forgetfulness of true humility becomes easier. It seems obvious that the more we take the self out of the mix the clearer the path to humility. It may appear a little complex, but the ultimate reduction of self is integrally meshed with loving unconditionally without thought of being loved: to give and be unconcerned about getting, to forgive and be unconcerned about being forgiven, to place self at Your feet and, thus, at the feet of others and let drop the consciousness of self in doing it – or, at least being indifferent to such a bothersome consciousness of self. A remarkable consequence of being able to do this, and one that contributes to the desired constancy of forgetfulness, is awakening to the fact that our value, our preciousness, is solely in that we are loved by You – not in anything we do.
There are some built-in glitches about our understanding of humility that can create ostensible problems – at least for me. If one genuinely tries to go unnoticed but also tries to do his/her best in whatever they do, the reality of our “best” being unnoticed is fairly unlikely. I guess what I’m saying is that an honest concerted attempt to go unnoticed is very noticeable.
The pursuit of awards, recognition and applause is quite commonplace – so much so that we’ve grown routinely accustomed to accepting it. Ducking into the remotest corner of the farthest wings, being soft not loud, being meek not aggressive or bold, is rare and, therefore, highly noticeable. Giving credit to You or to others for whatever we do or are able to do rather than accepting it and basking in it for ourselves is, in gospel terms, letting Your light shine through us and not hiding it. This is noticeable.
If we are to serve as the lamps through which You shine to others, then I think the Little Flower had the right idea: the “little way.” It is in the least significant, most routine and mundane events of our daily lives that the shining of Your light is least expected, and, therefore, most recognizable. This is the very stuff of humility that, in what we routinely do, You show through, not us. The skill of doing this, of not getting in Your way, is what must be worked on. When our mindset is that we choose You, we give ourselves too much credit. It is You who choose us. When we think and act as if we choose You, then our pride shuts You out.
There is pain, discomfort, insult, embarrassment and even humiliation involved in abandoning ourselves to allowing You to choose us, and to choose how, when, and where You will act through us. The practice of living in this mode is true humility and, strange as it might seem, there is great joy and peace in this.
Whether it goes noticed or unnoticed should not be our concern. The ‘best” that we can do has nothing to do with our self-filled carpentry, mechanical, musical, or social skills. It does have to do with routinely accustoming ourselves to being chosen by You and recognizing and allowing Your light to shine through us.
The very actions of trying to go unnoticed are negations of the false self that constantly craves recognition and constantly get in Your way. The more self diminishes within me, the more room You find to grow in me and shine through me. So, a major aspect in understanding humility is understanding that my “best” means Your best through me. The end result is that You should go noticed while I go unnoticed – especially to myself. This is my best.
I so love the little room we built onto our house which we call the “music room.” It’s where I sit in a recliner (which I like to think of as “the lap of God” ) and write these letters, and read, and think about You. It houses all my scripture commentaries and spiritual reading. It is a very special place where I come to meet You in special ways.
Why, therefore, in the architecture of all buildings, should there not be a standard little room just for spending time with You? We have generally accepted rooms in our homes called kitchens where we cook our food and often eat it, unless we eat it in another room called the dining room. We have a bedroom where we sleep to refresh our bodies. We have an attic or basement where we store things we don’t keep in closets; and we have a bathroom where we groom and relieve ourselves. Each of these rooms is dedicated to taking care of one or another of our bodily needs. Yet nowhere in the home is there a generally recognized room to take care of the needs of the soul. In the real order of things one would think plans for such a room would come first. It is telling that they do not!
Call it a chapel, a shrine, a cell, or even a “music room,” it should be a place where one can go to be alone in special ways with You. It is like an island against the tempestuous currents of the rest of the house. Of course it was never a requirement in local codes for building a house, but imagine if it had been – if, by law, every structure have at least one small “prayer room.” As society and culture evolves, picture what happens to such a room. For centuries, the place for receiving guests and visiting was the parlor. It has all but vanished now, replaced by the TV; for we receive few guests and visiting is a lost art. Now we have the “family room” or the “rec room.” We’ve brought everything we need into our private domiciles. Instead of going outside to sun or jog, or just take a walk, we’ve brought tanning machines, treadmills, and exercise bikes into our houses. Why go out to a movie or the theater when you can pop a VHS cassette or a DVD in your home player. Even the arcade has come into our living rooms via video games.
Should there not be, then, since we choose to live this way, the greatest need ever to bring You also into our homes? Should not we who, in our increasing insularity, do not even go out to church, seek to bring You into our homes? It’s hardly unprecedented or even innovative. Homes that were covered in ash when Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii millennia ago were found to contain little shrines or chapels that incorporated a space in the house for spiritual needs.
Of course, seeking Your love and Your presence in our lives needs no particular place, but it helps. It provides a place of disposition. The precise pitch and yaw of our spiritual antennae operates best there. I know that for me the mornings have grown to be the most precious time of day because of the early hours in “the lap of God” in the “music room.”
The saints offer us wonderful examples of holiness, loyalty and love. However, I think there is an error most of us are guilty of in regards to the saints. We tend to lionize them as legendary spiritual superstars “out there” far removed from our realities. A little consideration and reflection however, proves this to be far from the truth. Even though we may never envision them as such, saints had warts. Saints had to get up from bed and put clothes on. They had to eat and drink something and they had to urinate and move their bowels. When they got cut or scraped, they bled. They got colds. They coughed. They sneezed. They got along with some people, with others they didn’t. They were clean. They were dirty. They sweat. They shivered. They worried. They feared. They had headaches, upset stomachs, and anxieties. They were short, tall, fat, skinny, bald, hairy, beautiful and ugly. They got cavities in their teeth, dandruff on their heads, and had bad breath. Aches, pains, arthritis, constipation and diarrhea were all part of their lives. They were distracted from prayer and drawn by the material things of this world. They suffered loss, wept, and laughed. All of this, and much more, is the stuff of being human – and the saints were very human – just as human as I. I am equally as human and real as any saint.
We tend to brush all of this aside and focus only on the things that made them saints. But the fact is that what made them saints was what they did while being immersed in the unavoidable realities of being human.
The very humanity that gives us so many discomforts and problems is the vehicle of our sanctity. Sometimes what we have to work with is better absorbed by God that by us. We look at the pain, tears, and woe of life as curses, but the saints saw them as the rich soil in which love grows. God and the saints are on the same page. Living one’s wart-filled life on the same page as God is the thing – and maybe the only thing – that sets apart a saint from the rest of us. That’s precisely the point of sanctity: not necessarily welcoming, but graciously accepting all the warts as that without which the next step to sanctity cannot be taken.
It is fitting for me at this time to write to You about how hope is the crutch of the human condition. My wife is suffering greatly with bouts of very deep and very dark depression. There seems to be much to discourage me about life. Yet I, and many others in similar straits, am not discouraged. We realize that no matter how bad things get there is always something better and that hope of something better, beyond our wills, props us up. Hope is what we go to bed with anticipating a better tomorrow. It is a spark of energy enabling us to go on when we realize Your love and mercy in the face of our own failings. It is that which lifts and re-lifts us after every fall short of the goal. But where does it come from?
The answer to that question is that it comes from faith. Without faith in You, in Your covenants, in Your forgiveness and mercy, in Your love and concern for mankind, there is no hope. If God created man, there is hope, but when man creates God the crutch fractures. That is why, first, we must boldly and with conviction proclaim who You are and that You are. From this faith comes hope, hope that if nobody else cares for us, You do. If belief in You generates hope in Your promise, it moves us to act in ways that express that faith and hope, that is, love.
You continually offer Your faith and trust in me. You hope in me to seek and find You and this is why You love me – and this is how it should be with me. Faith begets hope and hope begets love. Without hope in the middle, without that “bridge,” we cannot get from faith to love. But when our hope bridges that gap, our lives proclaim hope to others. When the vision with which we see is one of hope, it is witnessed by others. That is how our hope gives hope to others. In life there is hope – it goes with the gift. Life is a hopeful condition.
I want to talk to You a little more about “disposition.” I want to share with You some thoughts I’ve been entertaining about how we dispose ourselves in a relationship with You.
First of all, to be in a relationship with You is not really something of our choosing. We are in a relationship with You whether we choose it or not. The “essence of being,” in us, is that of God. We are inextricably tied to God. So, the basis for the relationship exists apart from our will. Yet the recognition and nurturing of the relationship is up to us.
That said, we come next to the reality that we are powerless to do things outside of that relationship that affect its existence. We cannot “shake” the relationship from without, nor can we cultivate it from without. Only from within the relationship (inside of it) can it be nurtured – but not by anything we do but by our disposition toward it – for truly we are powerless here. I can pray, do penance, worship, sing, praise, do charitable deeds and give alms – or, I can do none of that – but it does not affect the reality of the relationship. It’s important that we know that. I could be a murderer, thief and all-around scoundrel and that too would not affect the reality of our relationship. So, if it is given that nothing I do affects the reality of the relationship, what is the effect of what I do?
My answer to that is “disposition.” What I do disposes me to accept, reject, nurture or ignore the relationship. Just as a son/daughter can do nothing to change the reality of their relationship to a parent, so too, within (inside) a relationship their disposition toward a parent either affirms or denies their interest and concern for the relationship. It is our disposition that determines what we do in a relationship. Doing “good” things disposes us to recognize and nurture the relationship. The good things we need to do were exemplified in Your life. God, in a very risky and vulnerable way, showed His disposition toward the relationship through You. To look upon the cross is to behold the full impact of God’s disposition toward His relationship with us.
If we believe in and firmly accept the existence of the relationship we are compelled to do something about it. The faith that comes from recognition and acceptance of the relationship is essential to disposing us toward “works,” but further, it is the “works” that dispose us toward cultivating and nurturing the relationship. If love is to grow from the relationship then we must do the self-transcending things necessary.
At any given point along my spiritual journey I am liable to come up with the astounding discovery of the “ultimate meaning of life” only to be revised or superceded later on. And that’s O.K. That’s what growth’s all about. Therefore it is with temporarily solid certainty that I share with You today my discovery of the “ultimate” meaning of the spiritual life.
Life is a time of learning to dispose ourselves to Your gifts. Our weaknesses and strengths become apparent in this endeavor. Our weakness lies in the fact that we are powerless in ourselves to do anything to merit union with You. But this very weakness is itself our strength if we use it to dispose ourselves to Your gifts. Indeed, the whole of the spiritual life is learning and practicing how to lay our weakness and vulnerability openly before You.
Faith, hope, and love are gifts which we, by our own efforts, could never obtain. But the practices of fortitude, humility and patience, which all stem from our weakness, can be perfected by our efforts and it is these that dispose us to receive the greater gifts.
The spiritual life is all about maintaining this open, receptive posture. You are the Great Giver. There is nothing I can give You that You have not given me first. I am the receiver. If anything, all activity should be directed toward becoming a better receiver.
A commentator on Aquinas I’ve been reading called You the “infinite enticement.” I like that not only because it’s so descriptive of the “hound of heaven” but also because it well characterizes another aspect of You as giver and me as receiver. Waking up to the inevitability of this relationship should underline the importance of disposing ourselves to the dynamics of a giver/receiver relationship. We wander when, even in small ways, we try to reverse that dynamism. Often, despite ourselves, this is what we do: we authoritatively try to fashion our own spirituality instead of receiving it. The key word is “dispose,” as in posture, position, or assent. This is what matters. This is the spiritual life.
Thomas Merton seems to suggest that for him it may only be possible to live the life of the true self in the monastic setting. My gut-reaction is to say, “That ain’t so,” but on further reflection that may just be the case.
What most encumbers our ability to find the true self and to live it is the false self. The false self is composed of all the parts our life in the world gives to it. Any atmosphere that we can be in that minimizes the need or desire to take on a false self makes it easier to find the true self – and I think this is what Merton means.
Within the daily routine of secular (or clerical) life in the world we are often strongly compelled within ourselves to assume modes of comfort, security, and advantage that have everything to do with nurturing our “successful” life in a world where everyone else is doing the same thing. This does not necessarily have anything to do with who or what we really are. Getting in touch with who and what we really are takes both an interior attitude and an exterior atmosphere. The atmosphere to acquire the essential interior attitude is not very well provided by the world on a day-to-day basis. I think, to varying degrees, it can be done but is monumentally more difficult than in an atmosphere given over to the very purpose of cultivating this interior attitude.
Conversely, I suppose it’s possible to become so attached to the monotonous security of the daily monastic routine of work and prayer that the attachment involved might be likened to the attachments of routine and security we seek in the world, thus also missing the point – but maybe less so.
A deep and serious consideration of the words Mary spoke to Elizabeth offers insight into touching the true self: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Somehow I’ve missed the fact that Mary might be the most profound contemplative that ever was, and that is because she understood her true self and lived it – and she did so within the context of a family.
What the monastery provides is a directed routine – a regimentation of one’s daily life with a single focus in a communal setting of like minds. In the world it is a war with battles on many fronts that consume much energy and regularly alter our focus.
The one inevitable focal point of my spiritual journey is my own uniqueness as an individual. What is inevitable about this is that I cannot escape my own uniqueness. I bring it to bear upon all my perceptions and relationships. What’s more, I am convinced that I do not fully understand my own uniqueness. At the moment, in regards to my spiritual life, my “unique” approach is that of trying to make the world my “monastery.”
I have thought of myself as a frustrated contemplative and have immersed myself in literature by and about monks. One time I went so far as to apply for an extended retreat at a Midwest monastery but dropped it because of other commitments. A couple of times a year I go away alone to try and live a monastic schedule for a few days.
Upon many times rethinking this I have concluded that my own unique self and my own unique situations are my monastery. I do not need to go to the cloister or the hermitage to be “monastic.” Fundamental to the cloister are the notions of praying and working along with much stillness and silence, yet all within a community of others. Certainly my world offers more distractions and, in that sense, there are more attachments to overcome. But like the monk I can, in my own world, work and pray in the presence of God and the company of others. Certainly, with effort, I can find times and places to be still and silent. The main difference between my monastery and the cloister is the relationships within the environments of each. In both environments unique opportunities to see You in others and to bring You to others abound, regardless of the vows. My monastery is a place to work on ways of converting the routine of daily life into prayer and reflection.
In a very real sense, Your monastery was the world of Your times into which You brought God; but, in that world there were times when You sought solitude. I think we throw up mighty obstacles to our own spiritual growth when we look at the contemplative life as an aspect of spirituality “out there,” but beyond the grasp of anyone outside the cloister, as if it could not be a part of our worldly daily lives. On the contrary, I think we can be grateful to the monasteries for giving us monks who have shown us by their writings and examples that the best part of their lives is not bound by the cloister.
Fr. Henri Nouwen says that the monastery does not exist to “solve problems” of those within. It exists only to praise You. You are not impressed, he says, with monasticism in itself.
I am not a monk, but the monastic ideal has a strong pull in my life. Its pull for me is because it seems to offer a style of life that accommodates seeking You in ways a mundane and pedestrian existence does not.
I think Nouwen makes a good point, and one worth reflecting upon: monasticism, like devotions, rituals, and traditions is a device of human conjuring. There is purpose all along the way in such things, and that is what ennobles them. As a race, at various stages in our spiritual growth, we have adopted such things as effective in our desire to establish and nurture a relationship with You. We will forever do so because of the restlessness of our hearts. The efforts connote desire, and that is good; but there is a pitfall here that I think Nouwen recognized and wanted us to consider and that is that our very being, minus any trappings or anything else we devise, should praise God. If we use ritual, devotion, tradition or the elements of the monastic life to this end in our own lives – that is good! What You desire is the indefatigable marriage of our spirit to Yours. This is what we were created for. This is why we exist. This is Your will. How we recognize and move to conform ourselves with Your will is our will and all those “trappings” we speak of may, at various times in our growth, be necessary pre-nuptials.
The concept of the union inherent in marriage aptly applies here. Each individual must lose him/herself in love of the other. You showed us this. It may just be that monasticism serves as a more focused means of losing our “selves” than others. The celebration of the monastic ideal as a “problem-solving” end in itself is, in that sense, not necessarily better than a person’s devotions, rituals or traditions. What You are about is the end to which all such means bring us.