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Oblate Blog: September 26, 2011

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I have been doing some work preparing for the oblate retreat on the weekend of October 7-9, 2011. This retreat will consider the last six degrees of humility in St. Benedict’s Rule, chapter 7. At the October, 2008 retreat we considered the first six degrees of humility, some of the oblates also made contributions to the conferences at that time. Since many of you were not able to be present for the retreat in 2008, and many will not be here for the retreat this October, 2011, I thought I would publish the conferences from the 2008 retreat as part of the oblate blog and then after the retreat this year I will also publish those conferences as part of the oblate blog.

Fr. Kenneth

Conference 3, Retreat: October, 2008 - Degrees of Humility

"The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape." Father Patrick calls this heroism. Father Michael Casey calls it patience in enduring difficulties with equanimity. St. Bernard says, "Should be very patient, as, in obedience, we meet with difficulties and contradictions."

Our novice master back in 1953-54, saw as a symbol of this degree of humility, a tree in the Rocky Mountains. It has to weather many contrary storms but it becomes stronger with each one. The same thing will come to the soul (temptation and trials) and we need heroism to over come them. What do we need to do? Obviously, we need to cling to Jesus Christ. As the tree grows roots deeper and deeper with each storm so should we cling more and more to Christ. These storms are for the purpose of making us stronger, not to destroy us.

St. Benedict says that we need to be obedient even when there is injustice. We have to obey even in hard times as well as easy times. Even when our confreres or neighbors annoy us we have to remain patient and not judge others. It has been said by many spiritual writers that it is usually the things in others that annoy us that reflect our own faults.

We have to remember that the heroism or patience that is part of this degree is from God and that any kind of heroism that would pretend to come from self, is false. In fact this is a basic part of humility, to realize that everything comes from God. We are nothing of ourselves. The heroism that comes from God usually is a joyful thing. Joy in some ways is a characteristic of heroism or patience. Things that sometimes seem ridiculous at the time, later can be the greatest cause of joy. It is also said that this degree demands a great sense of humor. This heroism or patience grows out of obedience.

Some spiritual writers say that those who enter monasteries and many others who seek to live a more intense spiritual life often climb the first degrees of the ladder of humility very quickly. St. Bernard is of the opinion that the first two steps have to be taken even before entering the monastic life or, perhaps we can say, before making final oblation as an oblate. The way of obedience demands that we go beyond the limits we have drawn for ourselves. In the monastic life as well as in many other vocations in life, we may consider ourselves as victims of inefficiency, mismanagement, exploitation, or unfairness. Anger and sadness can easily enter into our lives. These are often fueled by a wounded pride. This is when the temptation comes to give up or at least to rethink what we are doing. St. Benedict says this is when we need heroism, or what Father Michael Casey usually calls patience. St. Benedict wants the newcomer to the monastery, as well as those who are trying to follow him as oblates, to be warned of the hard and difficult things to be encountered on the way to God.

As already mentioned St. Benedict links patience or heroism with the demands of obedience. Having given such a priority to obedience, it is not surprising that St. Benedict recognizes that it will be in this area that the monks will be insistently tempted. Following the Rule of St. Benedict can sometimes be hard, as any human life can be. We will encounter many troubles in this life and in order to survive these, we need patience, we need heroism at times.

We need to remember that it is through sharing the cross of Christ that we die to self and enter more deeply into Christ’s life. After all Jesus does tell us in the Gospel that "if we want to be his disciples we must take up our cross daily and follow him."

Now we need to remember that patience or heroism is not mindless endurance. It is an acceptance, in union with the sufferings of Christ, of whatever pain life brings. It is not the amount of suffering borne that sanctifies, but the willingness to relive in one’s own situation the form of life chosen by Jesus for himself. What matters most is our practical acceptance of the way of Christ. In so many ways suffering is the real test of discipleship. Fair weather followers are easy to find. It is only fidelity in hard times that proves the genuineness of love. That is why Benedict wants to know how novices handle difficulties and humiliations. Bearing with misunderstanding and harshness not only witnesses to inner steadfastness; often it has the effect of concentrating effort and strengthening the soul. To go back to our symbol of the tree, a young tree that is too protected from the wind never develops a sturdy root system, whereas the apparent callousness of leaving the seedling somewhat exposed makes for stability and growth in its maturity.

True patience is marked by tranquility in all circumstances. Sometimes of course we know it is most difficult to remain calm when we deal with small matters. Major disasters bring to the surface our best qualities. I remember our novice master telling us of a monk who got really annoyed with a confrere because he squeezed out his toothpaste from the middle of the tube. Such little things can really annoy us in other people. I remember a monk who got very upset because others would put a new roll of toilet paper on the roller, in such a way that he considered backwards.

So what are we seeking in this step or degree of humility. I think in one word we are seeking tranquility, a calm spirit. It is good for us to remember that the patience and heroism Benedict speaks of here is not a specific monastic trait, but is common to all Christians. The kingdom of God is such a rich gift that it superabundantly compensates for the loss of goods or the need to endure the effects of evil.