Monday, January 21, 2008

Know Thyself

It is a regular source of wonder to me that we are so quick to think we understand others when we are mysteries to ourselves.

This reflection is prompted mainly by a routine difficulty that haunts community life. It is not difficult to observe another person's habits. However, we usually do not stop there, with a simple observation, and then move on. We believe we know the 'why' of those habits as well. We dream up all kinds of remedies for others' bad habits, and justify exposing these habits to them, sometimes even publicly, on the slim grounds that such interest is actually charity.

In this regard, I heard a wonderful quote from an abbot of our Congregation yesterday. When a young, musically talented monk pointed out to him that an older monk was singing out of tune, and asked how he should correct this 'problem', the abbot replied:

"Love him for twenty years, then tell him he is out of tune."

It is a quote worthy of the Desert Fathers. "Love him twenty years." In that time of genuinely trying to understand another human being, we might come to recognize that out-of-tune singing is wholly irrelevant to the goal of the Kingdom of God. We might even find some brother's ill-humor irrelevant; others' lack of charity: irrelevant. What matters is whether I am seeking purity of heart.

And seeking purity of heart, a stance from which we can truly learn to love, is a much more harrowing endeavor than the challenges of 'loving' others by constantly exposing their faults. When we begin the journey inward, we discover quickly that there is a great deal more awry with our inner lives and dispositions than we have any right to suspect of anyone else's inner life, which in any case we will never encounter.

Today we so often avoid the inner life not so much out of fear of what we might find there (though that is an obstacle to be sure), as we do out of a lack of awareness that we have inner lives. This is usually due to an over-reliance on sense impression and feelings in determining reality. When we were infants, even children, and someone hit us, we got angry; when someone made fun of us, we cried. But we didn't get angry and cry only when we were wronged. Often enough we got angry and sad because of typical childish self-centeredness. Much of that is socialized out of us by the time we are adults, but some questions still ought to trouble us from time to time: "Just because I feel angry, is this proof that I have been wronged? Is it proof that I must change something about someone else?" If I get angry because Brother Paphnutius is singing out of tune, is this objective proof that something is wrong in the world outside of me, or do I in fact need further 'socilization' not merely into our earthly society, but into the Kingdom of God, in which 'whoever is angry with a brother' is liable to judgment?

If our emotional movements are not simply determined by other's behoavior, then where do these emotions come from? Cassian and Evagrius (the latter moreso, in keeping with his greater interest in psychology) both point out that feelings often overwhelm the monk for no reason whatsoever. We used to speak of this phenomenon plainly as temptation, but today I fear that we are more likely to accept these irrational promptings as justifiable and craft a whole (self-serving) world view around them. It is possible, on the other hand, to start merely observing these emotions and not letting them guide us (other than temptations against purity, I don't recommend trying to ignore emotional waves, and I especially recommend against getting discouraged because we have feelings of anger or sadness!). As we loosen the immediate connection between emotion and action or conclusion, we can begin analyzing the source of such emotions. My experience is that they are often totally unrelated to the objective context of my life; I simply am tempted to interpret my life context un-objectively because of the strength of my emotion of the moment. I also find that emotions go away unexpectedly. I can be having a perfectly rotten day, and something catches my attention and I suddenly forget how awful everything supposedly is. In any case, this is part of what I mean by our own lives being mysterious to ourselves. If this is so in our own hearts, what justification do we have for judging others?

Thank you to patient readers who have not deserted me as I have had to concentrate on mundance matters of budgeting, etc over the past two weeks! God's blessings to you in Jesus Christ!


steve said...

Well said.

davidwebb3 said...

your Blog and the Monastery's podcast have been a real blessing and source of learning for me in the last month. Thank you for this way to connect to a community.

I found your discussion on emotions and our I/you relationship particularly rich.

Are you familiar at all with Fr. Keating's work on the subject (contemplative outreach)? or Fr. Theophane Boyd's short story collection 'Tales of a Magic Monastery'?

in peace

Anonymous said...

For all it is worth, I don't mind telling you that the quote from the Abbot that Fr. Peter mentions in this blog came from me. The comment itself is from the Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland.

Fr. Peter gave me a great gift through out this past Fall, he suggested I start reading the Conferences by St. John Cassian, which is where much of this comes from. The book is a wonderful one to read and I would recommend it to anyone else.



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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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