Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Feast of St Benedict - Saturday, July 11, 2015
|St Benedict of Nursia|
It seems like the higher we esteem someone, the greater the need to see perfection. We forget that we don’t come to God by doing it right. We come to God by doing it wrong. If we came to God by being perfect, no one would come to God. Our failures open our hearts and move our rigid minds toward truth, understanding, and compassion. It is in doing it wrong, feeling rejection, and experiencing pain, that we are lead to total reliance on God. Remember, the central symbol of transformation in Christianity is a naked, bleeding human… the picture of failing and loss, which is really winning, according to the paradox revealed to those who follow Christ. If there’s one thing we have in common as human beings it’s our weakness and powerlessness. There is a broken, wounded part inside each of us. Benedict was no different.
Historically, Benedict is a shadowy figure. The account of his life given by Gregory the Great in The Dialogues bears all the marks of early medieval hagiography. It was written about 40 years after Benedict’s death. That Gregory actually knew him is highly unlikely. Benedict remains a man of mystery except for the clear glimpses we get of him in his Rule. Much of the Rule comes from an earlier 6th century Italian rule called the Rule of the Master. What Benedict takes, omits, rearranges, and revises tells us more about him than any legends surrounding his life.
His Rule evolves as his life did in the process of coming to a deeper knowledge and truth of himself and his desire for union with God. It was written over the period of his lifetime and grounded in his lived experience. As we chart his geographic moves from Nursia, Rome, Affide, Subiaco, Villa Neronis, Vicovaro, and finally, Monte Cassino, we see his growth as a person as well as his change in perspective, which is reflected in his Rule. Even though we like to think of Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica, as springing from the womb with halos, I suspect that the young man studying in Rome was more than a little self-righteous, priggish, rigid, and judgmental, to say nothing of self-centered. His flight from Roman society and, more importantly, from himself, to Affide, with his childhood nanny, probably did little to lessen his self-importance. In Affide he became a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
The legend of the monks who sought him out as their abbot and later tried to murder him, tells us less about their evil ways than it does about how difficult a person he may have been to live with at that time, and how limited his capacity may have been for relationships that were not based on his terms. Who of us in community has not at least entertained a fantasy about what community life might be like without a particular brother!
I suspect that it was not until he actually stopped running away from himself, when he entered the cave, in Sacra Speco, that he truly began to know himself and God’s love for him. He becomes free as he lets go of the need for power and control, for safety and security, and for affection and esteem. It is then that he begins to attract others and is able to receive them as other.
Community is not only the context and setting of his Rule, but the very vehicle that brings us to knowledge of self and union with God and others. Even his discipline code, which takes into consideration the uniqueness of each monk, is never meant as a punishment or exclusion, but as a means of restoring the brother back to community. It’s designed as a means of conversion and transformation.
It’s crucial to appreciate Benedict’s emphasis on humility. He lived this experience. It was not theoretical for him. It’s the subject of the longest chapter of the RB (7) -- about 8% of the entire Rule. He came to know that the humble could always find God in their lives. They have nothing to prove, protect, or promote. They are conscious of their need for mercy daily. The usual claims that appeal to our egos are of no use whatever and are actually revealed as much of the problem.
He stressed humility because he understood that it is essential if an individual or a community is to flourish. Humility requires radical self-honesty — which presupposes radical self-knowledge. It’s grounded in a realistic acceptance of who we are — our unchangeable past, our inherited DNA, our innate gifts and aptitudes, our failures and successes, our weaknesses and strengths, and our relationships with others and God.
If a person possesses a realistic assessment of who she is, where she’s come from, and where her place is in the scheme of things, she has a good chance of accepting others and allowing them their place. Humility opens us up and places us in the right posture to receive grace. As the sense of God’s acceptance and compassion for us grows, so we embrace the other with the same grace we receive. Humility breaks down our egotistical fantasies and our need to be in control — our need to be the exception.
The awareness of our own frailty always exceeds what we can know of another’s. The one we consider our enemy always carries the dark side of ourselves, the things we cannot or will not own about ourselves. We can only face our dark side by embracing those who threaten us. The prideful alternative is a life based on radical untruth, which destroys the individual and, as a result, the community.
Benedict’s chapter on humility follows the chapters on obedience and restraint of speech. They all involve the eradication of self-will and self-centeredness. It requires that we acknowledge our enslavement to narcissism. Empowered by the intensity of God’s unconditional love, we find it possible to demolish our defenses and to admit the truth of who we are. Like obedience, humility involves trust in God and in those with whom God has chosen to place us. Only those who have a realistic assessment of their worth can truly trust God.
When Jesus speaks of the builder who must calculate the whole cost of the tower before breaking ground, of the ruler who assesses the enemy’s strength before sending troops to battle, or of a disciples inevitable encounter with the cross, he is simply reminding us that participation in the life of God means anticipation and acceptance of its full cost. As Benedict reminds us in the Rule, the cost of conversion stretches over our lifetime.
The invitation that he addresses to us in his Rule and life is for us to be renewed in the image of the One who made us in the first place. Like Benedict, we come to God not by being strong or right, but through our mistakes, not by self-admiration but by self-forgetfulness. Our surrender is a willingness to trust that we are loved. We are who we are in the eyes of God, nothing more, and nothing less.