Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Humility Step Five: Exomologesis

Step five in St. Benedict's ladder has deep roots in the third and fourth century monastic movements. The practice of manifesting one's thoughts to another human being is one of the hallmarks of monastic spirituality. It presupposes, first of all, a strong relationship of trust with a spiritual elder. This elder need not be old, per se, and indeed Cassian notes that there are hoary men who lack the discretion needed to be a spiritual guide.

Today, this practice is very often confused with sacramental confession. In the sacrament, the emphasis is on sin and forgiveness, whereas in the monastic practice, called exomologesis, the emphasis is on discernment. The novice is presumably unskilled in determining the provenance of any particular thought. Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light, and so not even every 'good' thought is worth entertaining. Likewise, as we noted in Step Two in the Ladder of Humility, most of us are unskilled at finding the proper balance for the satisfaction of our bodily needs. Someone on fire for fasting might actually exceed the proper measure and fall into sin.

Thoughts always have more power over us when they worm themselves deep into our brain where we cannot inspect them. The mere fact of saying aloud what one is thinking and being open to having it judged causes the thought to lose this power. Note the important circumstances in which I place this manifestation of thoughts: if we utter a thought in anger, with the intention of 'making it stick' (for example, when we yell at the waiter for messing up our order, because we are convinced he had it coming), then not only is there no chance for discernment and conversion, but we actually cement the thought in our minds by willingly associating it with a powerful emotion.

It is worth dwelling for a paragraph on this linking of thoughts and emotion. St. Benedict says that we should confess sinful thoughts humbly. I think what he means by this is that we should not let a clear confession become clouded by fear, sadness, anger, regret, and so on. These are not the same as contrition proper. Sadness, for example, might actually demonstrate pride: "I can't believe that I...I! could do such a thing (someone else, yes!)!" How often do we get angry with ourselves and say, "I can't believe that I keep committing this same fault!" or indignantly judge our actions before we confess them, "Yes, I gossip, but I'm not as bad as so-and-so! No one is bleeding!" Simply narrating our thoughts, sinful or not, before another human being severs the link between the thought and the corresponding emotion, and thus frees us to inspect the thought rationally.

St. Benedict stands somewhere between classic exomologesis and sacramental confession, in that he too emphasizes "sinful" thoughts. However, we must always bear in mind that he expects his monks to read Cassian and Basil, in which the more neutral practice is more explicit. In a Rule 'for beginners' [RB 73: 8], it is probable that analysis and confession of sin makes more sense. We will tend to be tempted more by false thoughts of good works after we have made some advancement in the spiritual life. Most of us have enough to do to pay attention to the temptations to more or less obvious sins, and it is this that St. Benedict wants to see. The person who understands his or her solidarity with others in temptation and sin will humbly admit whatever wrong he or she has done, given a humble and trustworthy listener.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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