Thursday, October 18, 2007

Humility Step Three: Consenting to Authority

"I have observed the demon of vainglory being chased by nearly all the other demons, and when his pursuers fell, shamelessly he drew near and unfolded a long list of his virtues."
Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos 31*

"Our seventh struggle is against the spirit of kenodoxia, which we can refer to as vain or empty glory....It strikes the such a way that persons who could not be deceived by carnal vices are all the more brutally hurt as a result of their spiritual successes."
St. John Cassian, Institutes 11.I-II**

We saw, in the second step of humility, that we need to embark on a program of asceticism in order to curb our lawful desires and allow grace to reorder them to their proper ends. We must love not the satisfaction of our desires, but seek rather to do a will other than our own. From the perspective of theology, it is God's will that we seek, but how exactly do we know what God's will is? Is it God's will that I stay up all night in vigil? That I begin to volunteer at a soup kitchen? That I enter the cloister? That I become a priest? That I marry the person who is quiet and good and not the one who is attractice and exciting? When we come up against these questions of discernment, the astute follower of Christ will become aware of how easily we fool ourselves and under guise of piety, choose subtly to do our own will, to trust our own judgment. Such is the affliction of vainglory alluded to in the tradition by Evagrius and Cassian above. Even when we are able to discern God's will 'to a T', if we are aware of having accomplished this, then we have gained nothing in humility, which is after all the goal.

The monastic safeguard against this trap is submission to an elder or an abba. In the Rule of St. Benedict, this role is played principally by the abbot. This dynamic accounts for the fondness of the early monks for recounting fabulous stories of obedience. These accounts, some of them quite shocking, are not meant to enforce a kind of hierarchy in the monastery, but are meant to liberate the monk from the hidden tendency to choose what 'seems right' or in modern terms 'feels right'. "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death [Prv. 16:25]." Turning over one's will to another in faith ensures that will we be forced to do things against our will.

This sounds quite frightening to the existential mindset that sees our identity precisely in the freedom to 'invent ourselves' and make our own choices. Does this not turn us into non-persons? Quite the opposite, in fact, but only if this is done in the context of faith. This is not a call to follow all authority blindly, least of all secular authority.

Let me give an example from singing. Most of us grow up singing by feel. A few very talented people can sing well without any training at all. Most of us need a little help because the voice is an extremely complex mechanism. Someone who tries to sing like Janis Joplin or even like Maria Callas without any training at all risks serious damage to her voice. When a person comes to a voice teacher, the first things that needs to happen is that the student must be forced to 'unlearn' everything she thinks she knows about singing. Sometimes, this literally requires a teacher to grab hold of someone's throat and move it around; there are two reasons for this, both related to the analogy of obedience. First of all, many of the muscles we use to sing are involuntary. We can't control them consciously. We need to adjust them indirectly, but we can't really know what that feels like unless some outside force moves the muscle to the place where it is supposed to be. Once it is there, we can learn how to reproduce the sensation. Secondly, sometimes habits are so ingrained that we simply cannot break the tension of a muscle group without intervention and manipulation from outside. We might not even be aware that we are constricting this muslce group until we feel the freedom of having this tension broken by someone else (if you have ever had a good massage, you know what this is like).

In the spiritual life, we are so frequently unaware of our blind spots. A superior does not need to be all-knowing in order to confront those blind spots; he needs only to be obeyed. Sooner or later, something will be asked that is utterly contrary to our way of doing things. How much broader is our repertoire of reponses to life if we learn to act in ways completely outside of our own judgment and resources! Similarly, often times certain habitual sins can only be broken by being forced to do something other than what we normally do to cope. Frequently a habitual sin is one that we aren't really ready to give up. So we choose 'remedies' that actually reinforce the problematic behavior. The alcoholic can profess the intention of not drinking any more, but if other habits in his or her life don't change, familiar situations will set off the triggers for 'just having one'. In the spritual life, we reach impasses precisely because the solution is outside our knowledge and awareness. Giving ourselves over to the instruction of another human being, chosen by God for this task, can often supply us with an unexpected (probably on some level unwanted!) perspective that later turns out to be the key to growth.

Finally, to return to the opening point: if we are able to fix all of our own problems, then we have little chance of becoming humble. As soon as we feel that we have vanquished all of our vices, we have fallen prey to vainglory and pride. This is not the way forward!

* Translated by John Eudes Bamberger OCSO

**Translated by Boniface Ramsey, OP

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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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