Thursday, November 08, 2007

Humility Step Seven: Self-Conviction

I made jesting reference in my homily yesterday morning, in the context of St. Benedict's Seventh Step of Humility, to the fear that modern monks have that accepting myself as lower than others will harm our self-esteem. The very idea of the 'self-esteem of monks' seems totally unworthy of the company of the great Abbas and Ammas of our tradition. Can I really stand beside Abba Arsenius or Abba Antony or Abba Paphnutius and say, "I would have liked to grow more in humility and holiness, but I feared losing my self-esteem?"

This is not to say that our experience of 'low self-esteem' is to be entirely discounted, only that we clearly have something to learn from an encounter with the monastic tradition, and that this lesson is not about how to improve self-esteem, but how that's the wrong category with which to approach the spiritual life. If we recall that our goal is union with God, a relationship of friendship and love, it seems awkward to fit esteem in there. If we enter into a relationship with someone because we expect that person to help us appreciate ourselves more, well, that might be valid with a counselor or teacher, but not with a lover.

Back to St. Benedict: if we turn his injunction around and look at its converse, I doubt many of us would have a problem with it. If we consider ourselves better than even one person, then we have not yet put on the mind of Christ, who became the lowest of all, who gave up His life for all. As long as there is someone out there who I am convinced is less important than I am, I will be willing to let him go first: "That sheep there is not worth saving!" we say, albeit indirectly, to the Good Shepherd as He sets off after the stray.

And the truth about pride is such that if we give ourselves that little opening ("I'm gracious toward most people, and after all, that guy really has it coming!"), we will ultimately slide into self-centeredness.

In a democracy, pride often masks itself as humility and simplicity. "I'm just one of the simple people, not some fancy-pants Senator like her!" "Yes, he's got a PhD, but how important is all that stuff anyway?" "She plays the violin really well, but in the end, what good were all those hours spent practicing?" We play out this game in the media all the time, setting up actresses and politicians, and then when they make a misstep: gotcha! We get the smug prize of at least not having made a public mess of our lives. In our present situation, it is so easy to give ourselves a pass when we make these sorts of comments. St. Benedict teaches us that we will not achieve 'the love that casts out fear' so long as we make these comparisons favorable for ourselves.

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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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