24 February 2008

Another question on Bendict's Ladder of Humility

[[I understand what you said about Benedict's ladder of humility and not treating it like a series of steps we must take in order to achieve humility, but as I read the Rule, Benedict does seem to attribute some benefit to using these steps as things to do rather just as signs of growth already achieved. Do you think this is so, or am I misreading what he actually says? Doesn't Benedict believe and teach that outward discipline leads to inward dispositions over time?]]

Thanks for the question, and for the chance to clarify or nuance what I have already said in regard to Benedict's ladder of humility. First, I think we must reject the idea that taking on these steps CAUSES the growth in humility, and accept rather that they are PRIMARILY SIGNS of progress in growth already achieved, manifestations of inward changes. This is what I meant when I said that these steps are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In this I agree completely with Michael Casey's comments related to those cited earlier: [[ To picture monastic life as a process of exaltation clearly emphasizes that it is God who is the active agent; the monk is the one lifted up. This offsets the idea that the "ladder of humility" is a spiritual Mt Everest that the dilligent monk must climb by personal efforts.. . .As we have insisted in the last chapter, the behavioral forms of humility are not proposed as a program of exercises to reach the summit. Saint Benedict offers them as the normal manifestations of growth. Humility is not a state achieved by direct application of effort. It follows the action of God, and is the usual indication that grace is at work.]] (Living in the Truth, Saint Benendict's teaching on humility." Michael Casey, OCS)

But does undertaking these steps if we have not arrived at them "naturally" result in any benefit? And if so, what benefit is that? If someone wants to grow in humility, can they do so by taking on these steps one at a time and practicing them, or is the situation more complex than this? In particular, which of these steps are behaviors one CAN practice and which point specifically to inner attitudes one must acquire as foundational to any behaviors?

First, it should be noted that the Rule of Benedict clearly says that humility is the BASIS for climbing or ascending the ladder of humility: RB7:7 "Without doubt, this descent and ascent is to be understood as meaning we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility." In other words, growth in humility is the cause, not the effect of these "steps" or rungs. Secondly, the fact is that Benedict's ladder of humility begins with internal or interior dispositions of the heart, and only later (and gradually) moves to external behavior. So, while it is certainly not true that external behaviors have no place, it remains true that growth in humility begins in interior dispositions which lead to exteriorization, not vice versa.

Still, your question has not been answered completely. Does doing certain external behaviors lead to interior dispositions? Doesn't Benedict believe that this can be so? And the simple answer is yes, to some limited extent. For instance, thinking badly of oneself CAN lead one to count on the grace and forgiveness of God. It can, as it did for Luther, for instance, open one to the good news of the Gospel about the unconditional forgiveness of God. The problem is, however, that one cannot adopt this belief or simply say to oneself without genuine conviction that one is the worst of sinners and really be open to the truth of the Gospel. One must REALLY believe this in order to hunger to hear the REST of the truth, the real bottom line. So it is not something one can practice "from the outside in" so to speak.

Perhaps a better example is the fifth rung of the ladder, because it deals with something that is more clearly an external behavior: [[a monk does not conceal his abbot any evil thoughts entering his heart, or any evils secretly committed by him. instead he confesses them humbly.]] Over time, this practice can clearly reveal one's own heart to one. But to work properly, a certain degree of true humility is presupposed (as the instruction clearly states). One might also, therefore, come face to face with the changes that need to occur in one's heart and life, and therefore be opened to the grace of God which will actually work these changes. But it remains grace which is presupposed right along; that is, it is the action of God which brings about the humility, and the grace of God which even makes the doing of the "steps" rightly possible.

When one honestly holds nothing back from one's legitimate superior, one practices the honesty which is the heart of humility, but one requires grace to do this. One exercises humility and can grow in it, especially if the confession is received with gentleness, and acceptance --- even (and even especially) if the response also challenges one to grow beyond this point. My sense though, even here, is that humility comes first and can be strengthened or developed with exercise. The mere (and probably apparent rather than true) doing of this external behavior (if it is not the expression of humility) could as easily result in growing pride or resentment, distrust, and subtler forms of dishonesty one might not be consciously aware of. In any case, humility is the presupposition for the act; the act does not necessarily lead to humility.

21 February 2008

God speaks to each of us as he makes us
then walks in silence beside us out of the night.
But the words, before one is given one's start,
these are the words we dimly hear:
Guided by your senses you are sent out;
go to the limits of your longing
embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows
I can move in.

Allow it all to happen: beauty and terror.
You must press on! No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country
they call life.

You will recognize it
by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Marie Rilke, The Book of Hours

A Question about humility, and a possible contradiction of St Benedict's Rule



Since a couple of my posts have dealt with humility, and especially the idea of humility of being grounded in the truth of who we are, that is the truth of how God sees us, they have raised questions for readers. One of them is especially good because it uses a paragraph from St Benedict's Rule which seems to contradict what I wrote just yesterday. "How is it [I], a Benedictine, can disagree with St Benedict in this matter?" The pertinent passage is par 51: "The seventh step of humility is that he (the monk) should not only pronounce with his tongue that he is inferior to and more common than all, but also believe it in the intimate sensibility of the heart."

Let me begin by saying we are often tempted to misread these texts in the same way we misread dictionaries, that is, as prescriptive rather than descriptive. And yet, dictionaries are really compilations of common usage which are therefore DESCRIPTIVE, not prescriptive. What I mean is that language changes and grows and a dictionary captures a sense, or takes a snapshot of what common meanings words have at that point in time, not what sense these must have for all time! While it is helpful to teach grammar school children (et al) these common meanings in a somewhat prescriptive way (for instance, for the time being you will need to use them in these senses if you are to be understood), the bottom line is we are DESCRIBING the meanings common NOW so these children can communicate with others who share language as it exists. As they mature as persons and linguists, their language will develop and change and include neologisms and new usages as well as common usage. They will expand the meanings of the words, and perhaps transform them entirely in time.

In a sense, the Rule of Benedict's ladder of humility is the same: it is meant to describe the outward signs of various stages of growth in humility a monk might evidence as she goes through her life; it is NOT prescriptive of steps which MUST be taken or behaviors which must be adopted in order to achieve humility. Especially, it is not to be taken as prescriptive of steps and behaviors one apes or practices hoping to make them habitual or "perpetual". As Michael Casey makes clear in his book, A Guide to Living the Truth, Saint Benedict's teaching on Humility: "Humility is not an action or a series of actions, nor a habit formed by the repetition of actions. It is, rather, a receptivity or passivity; a matter of being acted upon by God."

So, at some point in one's growth in humility, one will probably not only come to see that one is NOT better than one's fellows, but that since one cannot see the sins or read the hearts of others, one will also likely come to believe that she is truly WORSE than any other person. It represents a stage in true development of humility and (presuming the attitude is not pathologically rooted) reflects at least a couple of important pieces of growth: first the awareness of one's own sinfulness (brokenness and alienation) and also a sense of one's essential poverty; second, a refusal to judge others; and third, a growing harmony between inner attitudes and outer behaviors. It STILL, in my opinion, bears the taint of the "fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (or recognizes the monk will do so at this stage) because it juxtaposes or judges oneself alongside others (and vice versa), but it is an improvement over earlier stages of growth, and will be followed by what Benedict identifies as five more steps or stages as well.

We are a people addicted to "How to" books, and I think oftentimes we turn old classics in spirituality into such books. The temptation to turn Benedict's "ladder of humility" (or those by other lesser spiritual leaders --- for these were VERY popular at various times) into something we need merely climb rung by rung to a destination where we will then dwell forever is naive. It gets the picture backwards, puts the cart before the horse, so to speak. We should view it more like a spiritual topographic map, a map of a journey we are taking punctuated by certain landmarks or symptoms of stages in the process. The person who has never experienced TRULY seeing herself as "inferior to and more common than all" MAY need to attend to other and earlier stages of the journey of growing receptivity we call humility (although today one who feels this way may equally need psychiatric help as well as good spiritual direction!), but whether this is the case or not, it would be a serious mistake to adopt this as a way of behaving expecting it to lead to true humility. The point is the map is the RECORD of a journey already in progress, NOT the outline of a path we are to follow slavishly or mechanically. If we are on track certain landmarks or signs will stand out from stage to stage of our journey. if we are not, no running from one landmark or sign to the next will get us there. The journey takes place on a different level entirely.

One side note: in pre Vatican II religious formation it was often the case that ladders such as this one WERE taken in a prescriptive sense, and superiors tried very hard to mold or "form" young religious accordingly. Of course uniformity was a prized commodity in those days, and it was a good deal more demanding on formation personnel to patiently watch each novice or junior for signs of authentic growth than it was to impose and measure external conformity. (Fortunately the very best managed to bridge the gap between the two approaches and achieve a balance.) Humility is like the parable of the seed however: the farmer can only provide the basic elements and care necessary and trust that God will provide for growth in spite of external conditions, etc. He can no more force a seed to grow into a particular plant than he can force the sun to rise or the moon to set. The same is true of ladders of humility, etc. They cannot be used in the way described in this paragraph. If they are, the result will likely include damage to the tenderest growth.

I hope my comments do not seem to be simply an end run around what Benedict "plainly says". In fact, I can point to several Benedictine scholars who accept this view of Benedict's "Ladder of humility." I have not read one who says precisely what I do about the "taint" which remains of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but it seems to me their sense is the same: in pointing to growth in spiritual life we must contend with the taint of sin and of other ways of viewing reality which remain and accompany our growth. They are, this side of death, always with us.

Meanwhile, thanks for the question! I do appreciate getting them occasionally!

20 February 2008

Their Eyes were Opened! Not!!


We began Lent with the story of Adam and Eve, and the attractive tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted smack in the center of the garden of Eden. The myth (a story which tells deep truths which can be told no other way) is both puzzling and intriguing, and the basic facts are as follows: the fruit of this tree, though prohibited by God, was seen to be good looking and desirable for the nourishment and abilities it gave; Eve ate from this tree and so did Adam at her urging. Now, there's a ton of theological ink spilled on this whole topic, of course --- not least speculating on the nature of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil --- but despite all the theological enigmas that remain, the essential thrust of the story is that in arrogantly grasping at a "knowledge that would make them as God", Adam and Eve (i.e., humanity) exchanged an intimate way of knowing and seeing reality which was appropriate to them for one which was appropriate ONLY to God. In what is possibly the most ironic line ever penned in human literature, we are told, "Their eyes were opened!"

Of course, what the narrative REALLY describes is humanity's rejection of knowing themselves and the rest of reality as God knows it, that is, knowing and relating to things truly, and humanity's adoption of a false way of seeing and knowing (relating to). In particular we exchanged a destructive and narcissistic self-consciousness for a more appropriate self-awareness, adopted a sense of others as different than ourselves, and gave up a world of communion and authentic stewardship (service) for one of hierarchy, division, and self-serving, other-destroying, competition.

Far from having their eyes opened, humanity's ability to see (and be) rightly was crippled. God and God's vision was no longer the standard of reality, the measure of discernment or judgment, and everything built on this new perspective was skewed or distorted similarly. The first reading today (Tuesday, 2nd week of Lent) makes this clear: rulers have to be condemned not merely for failing to "rule" rightly, but for replacing justice with injustice, service with oppression, care with negligence; God tells them through his prophet, "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your actions from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the defenseless!"

In today's Gospel this picture is intensified. Even God's best gifts (the Law, for instance)become destructive when yoked to this way of seeing and relating to reality. Religion is used as the ultimate way to set people apart (and higher or lower, better or worse) from one another; some are righteous, some are sinners, some are scribes of pharisees (remember this word MEANS set apart), others are simply the little or the poor, etc. Human greatness is defined or measured at others' expense, so if one is a Master, others will be cast in the role of disciple, etc. As innocent and even positive as this can be, it tends towards identifying persons with their roles, and this is NEITHER positive nor innocent. It is also as far from seeing ourselves and one another as God sees us as we can get. Religion itself becomes onerous or burdensome for SOME instead of freeing and empowering, and even service can become a matter of charity which is demeaning to the one who is served. Jesus condemns all of this in a single sentence: "You are all brothers and sisters," just as he condemns identifying either ourselves or others by roles, or positions of superiority and inferiority: (Call no one on earth Father, you have only one Father who is in heaven," etc)

But taking Jesus seriously here necessitates a change of heart, a new way of seeing and relating to reality, as today's first reading from Isaiah makes clear. The last lines in today's Gospel give us a clue as to what this change of heart is: "those who are exalted will be humbled and those who are humbled will be exalted." In a word, the change of heart and perspective we are called upon to adopt is HUMILITY. It is a way of seeing reality which is more original and appropriate to humanity, a seeing and relating to creation as God sees it, and a living with and for others and the rest of creation in a way which recognizes and fosters their innate dignity and beauty.

Now humility is not a word we much trust today. It smacks of a lack of self-esteem, the inability to assert oneself appropriately, a passivity which is neither dignified nor healthy, etc. Even in today's gospel humility SEEMS to be linked to humiliation, and a kind of punitive reaction on God's part. But this is very far from what today's gospel is describing. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, or ground. In terms of today's readings, and especially in the context of Lent, humility refers to the state of being grounded in the truth of who we, God, and others really are --- that is, who God SAYS we are! Humility is a matter of seeing ourselves and others as God does ---- not as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil we should never have eaten from in the first place induces us to. Humility, then, also implies the capacity to love others and all of creation for who and what they really are.

There is no doubt this notion of humility seems very far removed from the attitude which is supposed to have been inculcated in religious formation in the past through series of humiliations and the habit of self-deprecation. It is still possible to find handbooks on spirituality which approach the matter in this way and highlight the "nothingness" of the individual believer, especially in comparison to others or to one's God. Humility, in this mistaken sense, is meant to be achieved through abasement, and abasement comes through casting oneself lower than others on a scale which seems to me to be right off the tree of knowledge of good and evil filtered through human minds, hearts, and eyes, rather than through God's! But how is it God sees us and asks us to see ourselves and our brothers and sisters then? What is the truth humility embraces and lives from, the truth from which Jesus' affirmation that we are all brothers and sisters comes?

I think it is very simple (and I will risk paraphrasing and concatenating several Scriptures in one statement here): "You are my people and I am your God. Though you have turned from me time and again (and will do so yet again!), I will freely give my very life for you to rescue you from exile and bring you back home to me, for I love you with an everlasting love, and you are precious in my sight." The humbling or exalting referred to in the last line of today's Gospel refers to establishing us each in THIS truth and making it the perspective from which we see rightly all that exists. It refers to reestablishing the dignity we each have as God's beloved as the truth in which all else is grounded, and making it the lens through which we are able to embrace and serve God and his creation.

We sin against humility when we forget that this is the truth which grounds us and is meant to serve as the perspective from which we view and serve all of reality. We sin against humility when we treat others as different than ourselves by using some other scale or measure; we sin against humility by setting ourselves apart from others, but especially by setting ourselves EITHER higher or lower than they. To treat ourselves as the worst sinner ever (or even just a "worse sinner") --- or the least (or lesser) sinner for that matter --- are both expressions of pride, and instances of judging in ways forbidden to us. To treat ourselves as "nothings" when others are "somethings" is as serious a sin against humility as treating ourselves as "something special" when others are "merely ordinary" or "nothing special". Humility sees things very differently, with the perspective appropriate to human beings who are called upon to recognize the preciousness of every person, and every bit of creation, even while completely aware of how far short we each fall as well. Genuine humility recognizes both aspects, but the bottom line is ALWAYS, "I have loved you with an everlasting love, and you are precious in my sight." This truly is the lens through which humility views reality. Anything else is the lens obscured by the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and is inappropriate to humanity.

15 February 2008

Be Holy As I am Holy; Be Holy Because I am Holy

Last Thursday's readings set before us the agenda of Lent, but also of Life itself. The imperative that involved, we were reminded, was, "Choose Life, not Death; the blessing and not the curse." The focus in those readings afirmed that, 1) Genuine Selfhood is a gift of God which is received only in ongoing attentive and responsive listening to the Word of God who dwells in the core of our being, and 2) the kind of attentive and responsive listening is what the Scriptures call obedience. What was implied was that to the extent we are our truest selves, we are actually a COMMUNION WITH GOD. As my favorite poet, e.e. cummings might say, the most real or truest "I" is actually a "WE."

But the dynamism and relationality (the living "WE-ness") which is the human self is not completely described by or limited to this particular receptivity and obedience. As important as it is, it remains only a part of the picture of what it means to have or be a Self, only a part therefore, of what it means to CHOOSE LIFE! Today's readings (Monday of the second week in Lent) help complete the picture by focusing on the nature of human holiness, on being holy as God is holy, on being Holy BECAUSE God is holy and we ourselves ARE COMMUNION with him. The surprise, I think, is that holiness is every bit as much a matter of relationality (of "We-ness") as is obedience. It is also as dynamic, but here the accent is not on receiving a self/life, but on giving it away, on spending ourselves for the sake of the other, and for God as well.

Misunderstandings of holiness abound. Perhaps the most common sees holiness as a kind of moral perfection, static and self-centered, and involving the cultivation of virtues or sets of virtues we then hang onto or guard zealously like some hothouse plants until death intervenes. At that point God is seen to weigh the degree of holiness we have achieved and reward us for it, one way or another. Righteousness in this view, which is nearly a synonym for holiness, comes to mean, we think, a kind of moral superiority or rightness which separates us from others --- at least in our own minds! But the picture of holiness painted in today's readings could not be more contrary to these senses!!

Instead, today's lections identify holiness with being there for the neighbor, with treating them with justice (that is, with the dignity they deserve as God's own creation and tabernacle), with dealing with the least among us as God has dealt with us, and in fact, treating them as we would God himself because they are called to the very same selfhood, the very same life incarnating God that we are. God's Word grounds and is at work in them just as he is in us. Further, they are called to mediate this life to the rest of the world just as we are, and we are meant to help this happen.

While it is true that according to today's readings we are holy to the extent God is alive and at work in us, the focus is on a holiness measured in terms of the extent to which we spend ourselves for others, and allow the gift of Selfhood God continually bestows to become a gift others are enabled to receive as well. We are holy to the extent we assist others to truly become the selves they are summoned to be in God. Holiness, according to today's reading is very much a matter of being loved by God with an everlasting love we never merit or earn, but precisely because of this, claiming as ours to cherish all that is cherished by Him, and in the same way --- empowering them to live from and mediate God's own presence as well.

Genuine holiness then, today's readings tell us, is not a form of spiritual narcissism, but a state of being claimed by God and belonging to him heart, mind, and body. Holiness, in this view is fullness of life, a fullness which necessarily spills over to find and serve all those echoes or images of itself which exist in the rest creation. It is a state of wholeness which recognizes and affirms the most real "I" is always a matter of "WE"!

08 February 2008

"Choose Life, only that and always. . ."

When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from today (Thursday after Ash Wednesday) both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose DEATH instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

02 February 2008

Reflections on Humility as the Dignity of True Humanity: A Beginning

"How does a person seek union with God?" the seeker asked.
"The harder you seek," the teacher said, "the more distance you create between God and you."
"So what does one do about the distance?"
"Understand that it isn't there," the teacher said.
"Does that mean that God and I are one?" the seeker said.
"Not one. Not two."
"How is that possible?" the seeker asked.
"The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song. Not one. Not two." Taken from The Rule of Benedict, Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, OSB

Over Lent I am going to be working through the chapter of Benedict's Rule dealing with humility. Though I am doing this for myself (that is, for my own Lenten concentration or focus), I anticipate some of it will spill over onto this blog. As will become obvious I think, I believe this is one of the most misunderstood and (in those instances where this is so) potentially destructive concepts in Christian spirituality --- though often because of what has at times passed for Xtn spirituality among the "professional" religious! However, it seems to me that all the posts I have put up here in the past weeks about the dialogical reality which is the human person (or the human soul or heart!) are fundamental to a right understanding of this foundational state of being we call humility.

It also seems to me therefore, that Sister Joan Chittister's short dialogue above can serve as a summary and a touchstone for recalling the basic and covenantal nature of the human self. Without this, we cannot begin to approach a Christian conception of humility, for above all, humilty has to do with a foundational integrity and dignity which is imminently and authentically human. This integrity involves a particular kind of poverty, a brokennness and distortion, a sinfulness, yes, but the real focus of genuine humilty is not that poverty or sinfulness (eventhough these are always present as the background of our perception), but rather the rich giftedness which is their counterpart through the merciful grace of God.

Humility then is, like most Christian realities, a paradoxical one. It is paradoxical just as the human being called to and made for humility is a paradoxical reality: dialogical, "not one, not two", so to speak. We are instead, "a covenantal self." The humble person is the one embodying and living out of this covenantal relationship, identified with it, rejoicing in it, sustained in and strengthened by it --- at once poor beyond telling, a sinner, abject and pitiful, and at the same time rich beyond all measure, righteous, exalted, loved, and infinitely valued by the merciful God who forgives and heals every need. Humility is paradoxical because in spite of the fact that it implies abjection, and specific forms of "loss of self", it is above all a form of real dignity, a matter of being exalted in Christ and empowered by the Living God to attain our truest and most authentic humanity.

What I think will become clear over the next number of posts is that when we focus on the human, sinful side of things, the brokenness and distortion, the abjection, the very real loss of self or self-abnegation involved in true humility, when these become the focus and God is left outside somewhere waiting to act, to dwell within, to forgive and grace and heal us, we have destroyed the paradox and lost sight of genuine humility in the process. Humility is what happens when light SHINES in the darkness of our Selfhood; it is what is realized when the would-be-singer discovers the song right at the heart of her existence and allows it to sound in and through her --- a clear and pure paean of joy both of, and to, the mercy of God.

Humility is the song, the pedal note sounding below, and grounding every other Christian virtue, which results when one accepts and celebrates their dignity as Daughter or Son of God in Christ. It is not an achievement of ours, not the result of some teeth-gritting asceticism or straining spiritual athleticism. It is, instead, the way or state of being of one who knows that in spite of everything, every failure, every misstep or betrayal of her very self --- and her God --- she has been known and loved with an everlasting love, and ministered to with an unearnable mercy which cannot be bounded or contained.