Friday, November 16, 2007

Humility Step Eight: Not Standing Out

"Organisations that do not innovate effectively may be destroyed by those that do." So reads the Wikipedia entry on 'innovation', and while occasionally one finds reference to the destructive effects of some innovation, generally speaking, the willingness to try something new is viewed as an unalloyed positive in our culture.

Monastic culture is part of a wisdom tradition. In such a tradition, there are often aspects that one can learn only by experience and imitation of the masters. Put more humbly, in any particular Benedictine community, there will be a variety of customs, many of them seemingly nitpicking: when to bow, how to close doors, how to pass food at the table, what color socks you can wear, and so forth. The eighth step of humility means honoring the wisdom hidden in these rules and in the behavior of the seniors of the community, trusting that they will transform us.

So often, men entering the monastery have been trained to look for the quickest way to mop a floor, or the most convenient way to fold clothes, or the 'most logical' way to organize a tool shed. But charity is not quick, convenient or ultimately logical. Charity requires seeking the good of another, and the monastery customs, we trust, are meant to be expressions of fraternal charity. When a novice tries to do things 'better', he usually doesn't realize that such behavior effectively calls into question the painstaking experience of the seniors, who have instituted the rules as a means of bonding the community. Innovation risks devaluing or even demolishing the symbolic actions we use to show our good will and love toward one another. On the other hand, humble acceptance of behavioral norms demonstrates a desire to be one of the group.

Frequently, I receive emails from high school students whose world history class has just reached the Middle Ages and whose teacher requires them to do a report on monasteries. This year, two precocious young men wrote a series of questions to me, one of which was something along the lines of "do you ever find it hard to live under all those rules?" To which I replied: If you go out for the football team, you will have to agree to abide by all kinds of rules. If you want to be a good teammate, you will observe them. For the sake of the goals of the organization (which in this case, you accept voluntarity), the team player accepts the fact that he must stay away from drinking parties, get enough sleep, and not do dangerous stunts to impress the girls. The rules are an expression of what it takes to be a team.

It strikes me as quite surprising that this step is the eighth, further up the ladder than what seem to be more difficult rungs, such as obedience under difficult or unjust situations. What I suppose this to mean is that while we can make a good show of bonhomie by following rules, it takes time and effort to learn to observe what seniors actually do when it is not written down. Learning to observe things objectively requires us to put aside our preconceived notions about what is important to see, and this requires the undoing of our ego, which tends to impose order on things rather than receive it.

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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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