Waiting for our care, not our censure
Holiness is not about hiding from the world in the depth of our rituals or in the distance from the questions of the time. On the contrary, the Rule of Benedict plunges us into the great issues of life—human community, simplicity, equality, self-control, and even something as basic, as all encompassing, as the way we talk to each other.
There is no promise of being able to buy our way into heaven with a string of pieties. On the contrary. The spiritual life, the steps of humility imply, requires a great deal more than that. It requires that we attend to the needs of others as well as we do to our own.
When we join the crowds calling out for the torture of our enemies, where is our gentleness then? When we applaud plans to deport poor people back to their poverty so that some can be richer as a result, how reasonable is that? When we expect special treatment for ourselves but ignore it for others, how modest, how humble, is that?
The truth is that egoism—the idea that my world begins and ends with me—is the bane of community. It warps and distorts the very soul of humanity. It makes those who shout the loudest the leader of the pack. It abandons the principles of human community: relationship, interdependence, equality, and care. It is a barren spirituality that begins and ends with me.
Oppressive speech—sarcasm, rebuke, anger, abuse, derision, defamation—drowns out love and splits the world in two.
Human unity or world division begins with what I say to people and about them. To other nations and about them; to our competition and about them; to our wounded, our hangers-on, our outcasts; to the little ones of our world. It’s the way we talk to the others that determines how much peace we ourselves bring. “Love thy neighbor” is, in the end, all about what I say to the rest of the world and how I say it.
One of the most poignant, most meaningful of the sayings of the Desert Monastics for our time is the story about an abbot and a peasant. Abbot Arsenius had a well-deserved reputation as a holy man, a learned man, a scholar, and an ascetic. He was rightly exalted and revered. The peasant spent his life cultivating his farm on the banks of the Nile as it flooded and receded from year to year. It was a difficult and largely thankless task, yet in its simple way maintained the community around it.
One day, the story goes, Abba Arsenius was asking the old Egyptian man for advice about what he was thinking. But someone overheard the conversation and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, why is a person like you, who has such a great knowledge of Greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this about his thoughts?” He replied, “Indeed, I have learned the knowledge of Greek and Latin, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.”
Humility is about coming to see the real worth and skill and gift to humankind of every person I see. It’s about beginning to understand that every person we meet is a gift of wisdom to us. We have something to learn from each of them. And we have something everyone we meet needs from us: a sense of value, a deep-down respect, a genuine admiration, a recognition of their contribution to the world.
—from Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, by Joan Chittister (Random House)