Saturday, October 20, 2007

Humility Step Four: Embracing Suffering

There is no use trying to sugar-coat the fourth step of humility. We will let St. Benedict himself deliver the goods:

"The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape."

The fact that this is extremely difficult is proved by the fact that St. Benedict appends no fewer than eight Scriptural quotations to fend off any complaints. That is to say that a Christian cannot grasp this embrace of suffering in the midst of injustice without faith and without revelation. In the United States, we are inclined to speak out against injustice; the very idea of (peaceful) protest is enshrined in our laws and our cultural myths. Jesus Christ followed a different path, and this is why we should listen carefully when He says, "When someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two."

What does this gospel teaching have to do with humility? Our usual response to injustice (especially when we are on the receiving end of it) is to become angry and fight against it. This is not necessarily the wrong response from a purely human perspective. I have written elsewhere, however, that Christian humility is a virtue normally hidden from the view of secular moral philosophers. If the elimination of injustice and evil is dependent on human beings, then quietly embracing suffering appears as a vice.

It is quite possible, however, that human beings are simply incapable of rooting out evil. The humble person grows aware of this possibility in his or her own struggle against vice. It is arduous work fighting the vices of one's own behavior: how can we possibly believe that we have the solutions to others' vices? That complaining about someone's unjust request will somehow bring about his or her immediate conversion when our own conversions come reluctantly and painstakingly? This is not meant to sound despairing, only to provoke us into a new region of awareness, in which God has the principal role to play in fighting evil. Once we come to realize that it is by grace that we are cleansed from sin and strengthened in virtue, we will learn not to rely on our own pluck and wit, and to trust God. This will also issue forth in a new attitude that refrains from judging others' actions too quickly, out of a humble desire to be consistent in our own words and actions.

We should end this reflection by noting that in the Rule, this injustice and suffering takes place in the monastery and under obedience to a legitimate superior. Thus, this is not a blanket exhortation to 'toe the line' with regard to secular authority, though Christians are encouraged to respect legitimate authority in that arena as well. Persons in authority have a responsibility to oppose injustice and set up the best approximation for justice in this world. They also have a duty to listen to the needs and concerns of their subjects. I would suggest that the legitimate authority that most of us possess in the political world is fairly minimal, but the ideology behind representative democracy sometimes makes us feel as if we should have an opinion on everything and express it. By contrast, when Jesus was asked to arbitrate between two brothers, He refused. When He was unjustly arrested, flogged, mocked and accused, He said virtually nothing except in a private audience with Pilate. He acted thus out of trust in the promise of vindication offered by His loving Father, and paradoxically, His trusting, silent, obedient embrace of suffering has merited for Him "all heaven and on earth."


Anonymous said...

Hmmm...Humility, after biting my tounge a few times I realized keeping silent is not easy. And even when keeping silent dealing with the anger or frustration 'within yourself' is no easy task either.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear anonymous,
You touch on an important phenomenon in the spiritual life that is worth addressing. When we make that effort to keep silent (or to fast, live purely, etc), we allow all kinds of hidden vices to float to the top where we can experience them. John Cassian writes in several places that the violent internal resistance we have to conversion is actually a sign of progress, though many people see that and think that the practice must be flawed since it 'makes us angry'. In fact, it allows us to experience the anger we've been hiding by gabbing, snacking, fantasizing or whatever other cover-up we use. What to do with this anger and frustration? First, accept it as a normal part of our human existence and don't be too hard on yourself for having such feelings. Then invite Jesus Christ to bear the burden with you. Indicate that you do not wish to be controlled by anger and that you want to let it go, now that you know it's there. You are on the right track!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the support. Intersting enough it was only a short time ago that I actually began to call(actual give to him, Jesus) the frustration and anger when it was just to overwhelming. Then I began to second guess myself whether that was the right thing to many things letting go is never easy...even when it comes to anger.

ThomasLB said...

I've enjoyed many of your posts- but this one is my favorite.

(BTW, I've linked to several of your posts, and they don't always show up in your "Links To This Post" at the bottom. Maybe there's some html trick I'm unaware of.)


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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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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