October 13, 2011

The School of Humility

Early on in my religious life I had an insight that has served me well: Life in community could help me to become good, or even a saint, but if it ended up making me worse I would be far worse than I would have been without it. In this sense I think religious life is hazardous; the possibilities for sanctity are many and great, but so are the possibilities for ruin.

Arriving in any new arrangement of common life, I bring my desire to be a good religious and a brother to my confreres and indeed to every creature. But I also bring my sins, immaturities, blind spots, idiosyncrasies, and things I'm just not good at. My mind and heart are weeds and wheat, as the Lord said in his parable.

The challenge of common life is that my weeds come to interface with other people's weeds, and the rotten blossoms of personality conflicts, imperfections in religious observance, and failures in charity and zeal begin to emerge.

It can get pretty uncomfortable. It's enough to make you think that there's something wrong with religious life, and of course there is. (It's called original sin, or at least the wound that original sin has left on our humanity.) But the danger here is to respond to the dysfunction with only lamenting, complaining, and blaming. Too easily these only lead to the sort of gossip, detraction, and backbiting that only reinforce and harden the difficulties.

As I get older in the religious life I realize that, at least in some sense, things are supposed to be this way. Why? Because the situation of difficulty, of not finding it easy to get along, of having my faults come into contact with the faults of others and together brew up a rotten cocktail of dysfunction, it's all meant to be a school of patience, charity, and the Cross. Thus, common life becomes an opportunity to let go of blaming and diagnosing in favor of confessing together that we are more or less at fault. Because the common life makes our own imperfections and sins more obvious both to ourselves and others, it is a school of humility. It is in this humility that the resurrection of mutual acceptance and forgiveness emerges.

This confession is the paradox of the Cross revealed in common life. On the individual level this paradox is revealed like this: the way to stop committing a particular sin is not to try real hard not to do it, but to surrender to the God who wants to free you from not only some stupid sin but your whole self. So it is in common life; the way for a collection of characters to begin to be saved from the common entanglement of their individual imperfections is not to resit the situation, but to embrace it and let it teach a sort of common humility.

Asking whose fault it is that common life suffers imperfections is as pointless as asking who killed Jesus Christ. As one of my teachers says, "The only reasonable answer to that question is you and me."


Ryan Harty said...

Wow. Good insights. And strikingly similar to married life.

Mandrivnyk said...

Thank you, Father. I think that discomfort is, in a way, common to any sort of life in common - whether it be religious life or a family.

In my own home, our somewhat difficult circumstances have at various points been a pathway to evil and also an opportunity for growth.