Saturday, September 7, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 7: Tools, continued...

 The tools of good works are these...


(56) To listen willingly to holy reading.
(57) To apply one's self often to prayer.
(58) To confess one's past sins to God daily in prayer with sighs and tears, and to amend them for the future.
(59) Not to fulfill all the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).
(60) To scorn your own will.
(61) To obey the commands of the Abbot in all things, even though he himself (God forbid) behaves otherwise, calling to mind that saying of the Lord: "Do what they say, not what they do" (Mt 23:3).
(62) Not to desire to be called holy before you are; but to be holy first, that you may be truly so called.

      I think a whole book could be written about just these seven tools.  Pretty much all the elements of monastic spirituality can be found here: listening, frequent prayer, confession, self-discipline, obedience…  But the most interesting part comes at the end.  Saint Benedict, it appears, was comfortable with the idea that his monks might want to be called holy. 
      But I have to ask myself: if a monk wants to be called holy, isn’t he being prideful?  What place can ambition have in a monastery of all places, where one comes to pursue a life of humility and self-denial?  If a monk wants other people to know how holy he is, isn’t he giving in to the sin of vainglory?  Apparently not.  Or at least Saint Benedict doesn’t seem to think so.  And he has the Scriptures to back him up.  In his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul himself boasts:  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on, the crown of righteousness is mine!”
      At first glance, this can be confusing, because we tend to equate humility with self-deprecation: “Oh, it was nothing, really.”…“Oh, it’s just something I threw together”…or my own personal favorite;  “I’m the biggest sinner of them all”(which actually turns out to be a form of boasting, doesn’t it?)  No, the secret to true humility is not self-deprecation, but self-knowledge.  So if you really are good at something, it is no act of humility to belittle your talents.  When you do that, you just wind up insulting God, who gave you those talents in the first place.  I remember watching an interview with Mother Theresa many years ago; the journalist said to her,  “Many people say that you are a saint.  How do you feel about that?”  I was expecting her to dismiss the complement—wave her hand in the air and say something like “Oh, that’s ridiculous,” or, “People say all kinds of silly things.”  Instead she said, “We are all called to be saints.”  And left it at that. 
    I have a friend whom I met at Oxford whose family lives in a castle.  I went to stay with him for a few days during one of our breaks, and when we pulled up his driveway, and I saw this enormous piece of architecture that he calls home, complete with its own pond, tennis courts, golf course and chapel, I looked over at his mom and I said, “Wow!”  His mom looked at the house and then at me and then back at the house again and she said, “Yes, it’s wonderful.  We are blessed.”  You would have expected her to say something like:  “Well, it needs work,” or, “Thanks, but it’s really hard to keep up.”  Instead, she looked at this beautiful place and thanked God for it.  That is true humility.
    So when folks praise God for some gift that you have, there is no sin in acknowledging the gift.  In fact, it would be a sin to deny it.  The thing is, though, humble people are often the last ones to admit it, because the holier you get, the less holy you feel (or so I’ve heard).  For this reason, a lot of people get discouraged when they pray, because their sins seem to jump out at them.  On one level, they actually feel worse than ever.  But this is natural, because the closer we draw to the perfect holiness of God, the more our own imperfections stand out against the pure light of His holiness.
    And that’s where tools 56 through 62 come into play.  You won’t achieve holiness of body or soul without them.