Proper 26, Year A - Sunday, October 30, 2011
Joshua 3:7-17 --- 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 --- Matthew 23:1-12
This morning's Gospel, among other things, is one of the great “monastic” passages in the Bible. Jesus' call to humility is a theme that all of the most important monastic writers spent a good deal of time with from the earliest days of our tradition.
Chapter Seven of the Rule of Benedict is totally devoted to the idea of humility. In it, our father Benedict teaches us that there are twelve steps of humility and begins the chapter with this quote from St. Luke, actually found twice in that Gospel, and also found in today's passage from St. Matthew: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In both Gospels (Luke and Matthew), Jesus tells different stories to communicate this essential truth. In all cases, however, he is speaking about various aspects of Jewish culture and society in First century Palestine. As I was reflecting on this morning's Gospel passage, I found myself pondering how this applied to the Rule of Benedict and to our lives here in the monastery as we live it today.
And it's in the introduction of Chapter Seven, entitled, by the way, “On Humility”, that I found some answers to these questions. Benedict uses the image of Jacob's Ladder to set up his discussion regarding monastic humility. He writes about the monk's body and soul as being the sides of the ladder and the divine summons being the various rungs of humility and discipline for the ascent. The monk descends the ladder by being prideful and ascends the ladder by being humble. The higher you ascend that ladder, the closer to heaven you get.
Picture credit: Albert Houthuesen
Now this was a theme used by many of the Monastic and Church Fathers in the Sixth century and for several centuries before, but I think it might be hard for us to connect with in our own time. The verse, however, in this section of the Rule that absolutely grabs me, and that has real repercussions in my life is this: “When the heart is humble, God raises it up to heaven.”
Brendan Freeman is the Abbot of New Melleray, a Trappist Abbey in Iowa. Recently he released a book collecting some of his homilies and Chapter Talks and in one section he reflects on this theme of the heart. Allow me to quote to you a passage:
Formation in the monastic life is formation of the heart. Once we have found our hearts, we move from the effort of prayer, the work of prayer, from strenuous prayer to self-acting prayer. The heart has two meanings. It is the center of our being and the point of meeting between each of us and God. Two do not exist in this place, but only One. Our prayer becomes Christ's prayer.Abbot Brendan's phrase “once we have found our hearts” is so moving to me. It seems to me that Christian formation – be that monastic or non-monastic – is about finding our hearts. If we are one with God in that place, in our hearts, then that is where the spiritual journey must, by definition, lead us. And Benedict teaches us that when the heart is humble, God raises it up to heaven, that is, to Himself.
So, what does it mean to be humble? To have a humble heart? Well, in the Carmelite tradition, St. Teresa of Avila teaches us from the 16th century:
I was once pondering why it is that our Beloved is so fond of the virtue of humility. Without it ever having occurred to me before, this thought suddenly came to me: It's because God is supreme truth. To be humble is to walk in truth.Now Benedict and Teresa and virtually every other monastic writer up until the second half of the Twentieth century often wrote about how wretched and awful we all are. But if being humble is to walk in truth, then we must have a full understanding of who we really are in the context of an eternal life which already began for us at our conception. And so, yes, we must know, for example, those areas in which we are weak, damaged, sinful, fearful and lacking faith. But to walk in truth is also to know those areas in which we are good, holy, whole, trusting, loving, and charitable.
If we are truthful with ourselves, we know that many, if not all of those things I just listed are true about ourselves. God already knows the truth about us. He knows that truth because he created us in his own image and likeness and longs for us to know him as our Father. Our journey is to discover that truth so that we can move closer to becoming one with God. So that two no longer exist in our hearts, but only One.
For us, in the Twenty-First century, “the truth” has become reduced in some circles to simply a psychological understanding of ourselves. And the psychological understanding of the human mind is a great gift that God has revealed to us over the course of the last hundred years or so. But it is only part of the the truth - seeking that we are called to do. In fact, knowing ourselves and reflecting on our own psyches, environment, families, social, political and economic situations can teach us a great deal about ourselves.
But the bottom line is that all of that information is only that: information. To be a Christian in formation is to be a Christian in prayer. To be a Christian in prayer means not that we are exalted, but that we have willingly humbled ourselves in truth, so that Christ can unite us with himself as he prays within us. It is Christ's praying within us that brings us to the heights of exaltation, to heaven, to God our Father.
The Christian never arrives at The Truth. Rather, the Christian journeys within a context of truth, learning more and more about themselves and in the process about God. The Church, representing the entire Christian community makes this same journey of truth on a communal basis. That truth is revealed in prayer. A prayer of the heart. A prayer of Christ's heart.
The goal of prayer is to help us to arrive at a place of silence. There are certainly many different prayer techniques and different techniques are appropriate for different people. But the goal is all the same: silence.
God leads us, as he led Joshua into the Promised Land. On the banks of the River Jordan, he and all the people ritually prepared themselves so that they could enter the Promised Land thus exalting their people. Our way to the Promised Land is the silent way. Silence is a way of being that places us in right relationship with God. It is a knowledge that in our silence before God, we are exalted because only then are we able to hear Christ praying within us. Uniting with us in an eternal love that carries us up that ladder to heaven, to God who is our Father.