Monday, October 15, 2007

Humility Step Two: Doing the Father's Will

St. Benedict quotes our Lord in John 6:38, "I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." He ties this is to a renunciation of self-will and the pleasure that comes from satisfying our own desires. In an older language, we would speak of the necessity of mortification in the spiritual life. Our desires in themselves are not bad: hunger and thirst are beneficial in that they allow us to care for our bodies properly. Sexual attraction makes pleasurable the continuance of the human race and the sacrifices that come with family life. Anger gives us the energy to resist evil, and sadness helps us to be converted from sin. But any of these desires can become an end in itself. Instead of taking care of ourselves, our spouses and children and caring for the community, we turn our desires selfishly inwards. We no longer see our bodies in their 'nuptial meaning' (to use John Paul II's wonderful phrase), and see instead a distorted version of ourselves as living only for ourselves.

Today, this distortion (which the scholastics called 'concupiscence') is in part the result of a strange and faulty philosophy that grows out of the upheavals of early modernity. Instead of rooting the theory of the person in culture and community, early modern and Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau began with the theory of the person as an individual with inherent individual rights. These rights are then bartered with other individuals so that ultimately 'enlightened self-interest' binds community by a 'social contract'. We cease to see ourselves as embedded in culture and we fail to see relationships as 'givens'; instead relationships are 'choices'. The governing rule is to seek to satisfy our desires to the best we can without offending others.

In this problematic arrangement, marriage becomes a contract in which, for example, men agree to give up freedom in exchange for (lawful) sexual pleasure. This idea is very prevalent in the media.

Rising bread dough needs to be punched down once or twice. This is not because the rising is bad, but because if the leavening action is not directed, it will go beyond what is a helpful rise, the bread will collapse, and the person eating the bread will not enjoy it. Similarly, hedges need trimming and pruning, not simply because they look better that way, but in fact they will live longer and have stronger roots and branches if we cut away the unproductive growth. Similarly with human desire: sometimes to find the correct mean and direction of a desire, we need to cut it back. The person who allows desire to run away with his life might not feel himself 'proud', but behind unchecked desire lurk self-will and rationalizations such as "My life is tough; I should be able to have an extra beer each night;" "Some people are able to control what they look at, but after all, they are dull; I might not be chaste, but at least I'm living!" These sorts of rationalizations put our desires at the center of our decision-making processes rather than putting others' needs and reasoning at the center. Seeeking humbly to follow God's law and realizing that we are made for others will open a space in our lives for learning to discipline our desires toward a higher goal. Putting ourselves at the service of others will naturally combat our sense of self-importance.

P.S. Did I write something in the last post that sounded like an apology for possible heresy? I don't quite understand the two comments that came in...though I do appreciate that people take the time to respond! Thanks.

1 comment:

ThomasLB said...

I thought this link might interest you:

It's a different faith than yours, but it's the same topic (humility), and says many of the same things.


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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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