The Abbot’s Notebook for May 31, 2017

Blessings to you!  Here it is the day before my surgery and all seems to be going well.  I feel pretty good overall and it is still a bit difficult to imagine that I have this tumor in my chest and tomorrow the doctors will open me up and take it out.  It just shows that what we see is not always the truth.  I look well, I feel well and people who see me don’t know that the tumor is there.  Yet it is there and it must come out.

Someone commented to me about my last Notebook:

“I think the way you phrased the ‘I am no good’ thought is confusing and maybe contradictory.  If we are really created in the image and likeness of God, we are good to the core and we never exist outside of God and his love.  Since that is our starting point, I don’t think saying ‘I am no good’ does justice to that reality.  The challenge we have as humans is to assume that identity of ‘beloved connection,’ because we are afraid of its demands and because we are afraid to abandon ourselves to it.  I always think about the fact that there is not one living human being who didn’t start with love and nurture or they never would have made it past the first three years.  I think that the universal primal experience of nurture from someone as the foundation of life is a metaphor for our creation in the image and likeness of God and his invitation to assume our true identity and destiny.”

Saint Benedict says this in his Rule for Monks in Chapter 7 on Humility:  49The sixth step of humility is that a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given, 50saying to himself with the Prophet: I am insignificant and ignorant, no better than a beast before you, yet I am with you always (Ps 72[73]:22–23).

51The seventh step of humility is that a man not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value, 52humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: I am truly a worm, not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people (Ps 21[22]:7). 53I was exalted, then I was humbled and overwhelmed with confusion (Ps 87[88]:16). 54And again, It is a blessing that you have humbled me so that I can learn your commandments (Ps 118[119]:71, 73).

These comments are not contradictory, but simply express different ways of looking at our world and our relationship to the world.  I can tell anybody:  “I am not good.”  When I say that, it does not mean, for me, that I deny my innate goodness because I am created by God and loved by God beyond all imagining.  It took me many years to believe in the depths of my heart that I am loved by God but at this point in life, it is a part of the foundation of my life.  HE loves me and nothing stops that love, even my failures and sinfulness.

And I have no problem thinking and knowing that “I am inferior to all and of less value.”  Saint Benedict’s steps of humility are only for those who know they are loved.  In the modern era, as C.S. Lewis (the author of many wonderful books) commented, one of the great problems is not pride, but lack of self-esteem.  For someone who lacks self-esteem, it is very difficult to say that “I am inferior to all and of less value.”

Lots of modern monks have problems with these teachings of Saint Benedict but that is generally because no one wants to say that he is “inferior to all and of less value.”  I can understand that.  The first reality of our spiritual life must be that God loves us without condition and that we are of infinite value.  That must be at the very heart of our belief about God and about ourselves.

As we grow and live, we find how faithless we are, over and over and over.  There are a few saints who seem to have lived life without any serious sin.  That may be the case for many today but it is not how I have lived my life.  For sure, I am less sinful as I get older and I am more faithful to prayer.  But this counsel of Saint Benedict is not about comparing ourselves with others.  This counsel is about keeping our hearts and our inner eyes on the Lord alone.  When we look at God, we know that He loves us.  We also know that we do nothing good on our own.  We are good and we are created good, but we don’t do good.  What we do on our own is without God and thus not good.

So when I say that “I am no good,” it refers to what I do, not to who I am.  I am good by creation and by the love of God!  What I do is not good unless it is God within me doing it.  So, perhaps I need to be more precise in my language and not tell you or others that “I am no good.”  What I should say precisely is that my goodness comes from God and that what I do on my own is no good.

It is always good to acknowledge that we are created good and that we are good by God’s love.  But today there is a real lack of acknowledgement of sin and its effects in our lives.  Instead, our culture wants to turn everything into good and to pretend that there is no evil at all.  That is not a healthy development.  When I was young, lots of things were seen as sinful.  Today very little is seen as sinful.  This is almost a normal overreaction.  For Saint Benedict, and in my personal spirituality, I recognize that a huge percentage of my thoughts, words and deeds are not coming from my relationship to the Lord, but simply from myself.  My personal spirituality has been a slow combat with myself to let God triumph in me in everything:  thought, word and deed.

The next time I write, I should be able to tell you about the surgery.  For now, I ask your prayers that all go well.  Pray for the surgeon and all who assist him.  Pray for me and good results from the surgery.  I send you my love and prayers.  I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip