A call to humility in times of conflict

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Bill Carroll

(Note: All parenthetical references in the text are to Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude)

For a while now, I have been working out an analysis of Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton’s short spiritual classic, in terms of what he has to say about poverty and humility. It occurs to me that one of the subtexts of the longer paper I intend to write is a need for spiritual leadership in the churches of the Anglican Communion. I think it might be worthwhile to address this theme more explicitly in a shorter piece for a slightly different audience.

Thoughts in Solitude was written at a time when Merton was granted leave by his superiors to live in solitude for an extended period. In this work, he finds himself grappling with the relationship between the individual and the community. As he does so, he helps us to ground insights familiar to many of us from family systems theory more deeply in our life in Christ. Paying attention to what Merton has to say about the life of a poor and humble solitary before God may teach us how to be more fully ourselves as we seek the highest degree of communion possible with others.

Merton’s analysis of humility unmasks the spiritual violence behind recent exhortations to “stand in a crucified place” or to sacrifice our conscience for the sake of the perceived good order of the Anglican Communion. Life in Christ does involve deep immersion in the paschal mystery. What is more, a stripping away of the illusions of the false self, including pride and self-centeredness, is necessary for genuine Christian community. In the opening words of the first chapter, Merton contrasts true and false ways of participating in Christ’s life-giving death:

There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve. It must therefore die. There is no greater misery than to mistake this fruitless death for the true, fruitful and sacrificial “death” by which we enter into life. The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves a total commitment to reality. (3)

Merton does believe that dying with Christ involves self-conquest and self-surrender. The self as we know it is a false self, deeply implicated in sin, illusion, and “unreality.” And yet true self-conquest (like the Church’s communion of love, which it makes possible) is not something we can manufacture for ourselves:

“Real self-conquest is the conquest of ourselves not by ourselves but by the Holy Spirit. Self-conquest is really self-surrender. Yet before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess.” (18)

True self-conquest involves a form of self-love:

To love our nothingness we must love everything in us that the proud man loves when he loves himself. But we must love it all for exactly the opposite reason. To love our nothingness we must love ourselves. But the proud man loves himself because he thinks he is worthy of love and respect and veneration for his own sake. Because he thinks he must be loved by God and man. Because he thinks he is more worthy to be honored and loved and reverenced than all other men. The humble man also loves himself, and seeks to be loved and honored, not because love and honor are due to him but because they are not due to him. He seeks to be loved by the mercy of God. He begs to be loved and helped by the liberality of his fellow men. Knowing that he has nothing he also knows that he needs everything and he is not afraid to beg for what he needs and to get it where he can. (35-36)

To love oneself with the love of a humble person does not mean that we love only the self as it is before the fall (or in glory). It means to love ourselves as we actually are, acknowledging our faults, struggling against them, and handing over what we cannot handle to the inexhaustible mercy of Christ. We do so, realizing that there are some fights we cannot win and that even our ability to struggle is contingent on God’s creative gift. To love ourselves with a humble love is to accept, radically, that we are poor and needy creatures—and fallen ones at that. And it is to accept our humanness as it is and not as we would have it be, so that we might place ourselves, as we truly are, in the hands of the living God: “It is necessary that I be human and remain human in order that the Cross of Christ be not made void. Jesus died not for the angels but for men.” (129)

How do we treat one another, if we adopt this posture before God and neighbor? First and foremost, we discipline our tongue (and our actions), especially when provoked. From the New Testament letter of James onward (there are precedents in the Old Testament Wisdom literature), the unbridled tongue has been seen as a profound danger in the Christian life, a threat to the charity that ought to prevail among us After the fall, our language can obscure reality as much as disclose it. Indeed, although the task of naming was given in Paradise as a means of reverence and gratitude, it can be perverted into an act of violence. Merton notes the different roles played by words in prayer and magic: “Prayer uses words to reverence beings in God. Magic uses words to violate the silence and the sanctity of beings by treating them as if they could be torn away from God, possessed, and vilely abused, before the face of His silence.” (64)

Merton also contrasts the speech proper to pride and humility: “It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard. The words of the proud man impose silence on all others, so that he alone may be heard. The humble man speaks only in order to be spoken to. The humble man asks nothing but an alms, then waits and listens.” (89)

It would be a profound misunderstanding of Merton’s teaching, however, to think that this implies passivity on the part of the humble person: “Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis. It sets us free to act virtuously, to serve God and to know Him. Therefore true humility can never really inhibit any really virtuous action, nor can it prevent us from fulfilling ourselves by doing the will of God.” (58)

Now, it seems to me (of course I could be wrong), that recent controversial actions of the Episcopal Church are the result of a long and careful discernment of God’s will in community. Like all discernment, this is ongoing, but its fundamental direction is unlikely to be reversed. As such, this represents a real breakthrough for us as a church, grounded in many breakthroughs of a similar kind in the lives of some of our members. For some of these members, this has been a matter of life and death, certainly a matter of personal integrity and truthfulness. Given this discernment, the actions we have taken (first steps toward Church-wide liturgies for blessing same sex unions; consecration of duly elected bishops living in such unions) seem to us to be not just permissible but morally required. Humility, therefore, cannot inhibit us from taking these steps.

Humility does, however, call us to perpetual self-examination and repentance before God and deep reverence before our brothers and sisters, all of whom are sacraments of the Gospel. At the present, for a variety of reasons, some continue to make a contrary discernment to our own. As sinners redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, this ought to give us pause. When we speak with our brothers and sisters about these matters, we should not do so out of an anxiety to be heard. Nothing we say to each other should come from a desire to dominate or control our neighbor or to manage the outcome of our conversation. We should speak and listen with deep awareness of the many ways in which our perspective is distorted by sin and self-serving illusions. In particular, many of us speak from a position of relative affluence and power, rooted in sinful structures absolutely opposed to the Reign of God. We should speak only in order to be spoken to, with a genuine fraternal desire for instruction and correction if need be, but not in such a way that we fail to discharge our moral obligations to our LGBT brothers and sisters, in any part of the world, or to the truth as we have come to know it in Christ Jesus. We should speak simply and clearly whatever God gives us to say, and then trust God for the rest.

Filled with a sense of our own lowly status, as fallen yet beloved creatures of God, perhaps we can renounce quick institutional fixes and learn what it means to live together as brothers and sisters in knit together by the Holy Spirit in the bonds of charity. At the heart of this lies the forgiveness of sins and mutual forbearance, for whatever virtues we have are fleeting—and, in any event, are ours only by the mercies of God. In the end, as Merton observes:

We must love the poverty of others as Jesus loves it. We must see them with the eyes of His own compassion. But we cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins. (26)

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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