Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Salt of the Earth

The first degree of humility, then,
is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes (Ps. 35[36]:2)
and beware of ever forgetting it.
Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded;
let his thoughts constantly recur
to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins
those who despise God,
and to the life everlasting which is prepared
for those who fear Him.
Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices,
whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet,
or the self-will,
and check also the desires of the flesh. (From Ch 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict)

The word “humility”, as many of you will already know, comes from the latin humus which is a root for our English word, earth. The implication is that, by “humility”, Benedict didn’t mean to imply the modern idea of submission and weakness, even mousiness. The idea he had in mind is the trait of knowing exactly who we are in the world. As Fr. Michael Casey put it, the idea is of living in the truth, about ourselves, about others, and most importantly, about God.

People today have lost touch with this reality. The tendency I see all too often, is to try to bring God down to our size. We want to make him a good buddy, a friend and companion, a big sugar-daddy, forgetting all the while just who exactly he is: the Lord, God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. He is something entirely Other from any of us.

Benedict wouldn't agree with our modern tendencies. He would ask us to be mindful of just exactly who we are and who God is. He's not afraid to remind the monk, and the Christian, that there is, indeed, such a thing as “hell fire” and that it is something to be feared. I don't think there can be much doubt that Benedict seems to be talking about real, almost visceral fear, not just “respect” or “love” as I’ve heard it described all too often lately. Benedict means the real thing, because if we forget all this, the consequences will be eternal.

But, when Benedict talks about fearing God and hell fire and brimstone, is he just showing himself to be another Christian fundamentalist extremist whose only desire is to squeeze all the joy out of life? Is he really advocating that Christians must live their lives in fear and terror of an unreasonable and judgmental God?

At first glance, it might look that way. But a further reading of Chapter 7 gives a different picture. At the end of the chapter, Benedict writes:

Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will
presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear.

At this point, those souls will have attained that perfect loves that drives out fear. It becomes clear that Benedict sees the Christian journey as just that, a journey on the road to final beatitude. In keeping with what he wrote in the Prologue, he sees this life as a “school” of service to the Lord. In the early, simple stages of development, the initial motivation might be little more than fear of hell. But this first step is the necessary prelude to further growth – it’s what first gets our attention. The goal is the driving out of that fear through love. And progressing along this road, if that is the right term, means that we come to know and accept more of the truth about the reality of our existence. It means growing in humility.

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