With this blog I will begin posting the conferences given at our oblate retreat October 7-9, 2011. As you who were present know, the retreat was on the last six degrees or steps of humility as found in chapter seven of the Rule of St. Benedict. For those not able to attend the retreat perhaps you can read them on the blog.
Conference 4, Retreat: October 2011 - The Last Six Degrees of Humility
Sunday, October 9, 2011, 9:15 a.m. Paul Tarro gave the last conference for the oblate retreat On Humility. He and his wife Sandi also made their final oblation on Saturday, October 8, 2011. I had asked him to give a report on the book: Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility, by Stephen Cherry.
I feel somewhat like a little red Ford escort I use to own and I’m trailing behind a double-bottom UPS tractor-trailer rig. Fr. Kenneth has proven an aspect of, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, longevity having its value. Length of time living with something gives you a kind of familiarity that moves that thing from your head to your heart, and as Jesus said, out of the heart flow the issues of life. Fr. Kenneth has spoken to us so eloquently from his heart, something most of us are just now struggling to get into our heads. May God give us the time and grace to get it from here (head) to here (heart). Thank you Fr. Kenneth for all you’ve given to us this weekend.
Let’s begin this conference with prayer. The Lord be with you….
Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand your teachings. Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires we may pursue a spiritual way of life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to you. For you, Christ our God, are our light, and to you we give glory, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
We want to talk about "this" book, but I want to begin at a different place.
I wish I could tell you a story. I wish I could read you a book. But time won’t allow me to do either, so I’ll summarize the story and read just one page from the book. The story is of Euphrosynos, a 9th century monk of the Eastern Church, a different tradition from the Rule of Benedict. His tradition was informed by the work of Saint Macrina and her brothers, the Saints Basil and Gregory. The summary of Euphrosynos’s story is on the back of this reproduction of his icon.
Euphrosynos was a simple man, but a man of God. He served as the cook in an Amorean monastery [Mt. Athos, Greece] in the ninth century.
One night, the spiritual father of this monastery saw himself in Paradise, and saw Euphrosynos there as well. Euphrosynos picked and gave him three apples from Paradise.
When the spiritual father awoke, he saw three unusually beautiful and fragrant apples by his pillow. He quickly found Euphrosynos and asked him: "Where were you last night, brother?"
"I was where you were, father,'' the blessed God-pleaser replied.
The spiritual father then revealed the entire incident to the monks, and all recognized the sanctity and godliness of Euphrosynos.
But Euphrosynos, fearing the praise of men, immediately fled the monastery and hid in the wilderness, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Bishop Nikolai Velimirovch, The Prologue from Ohrid
The book I wish I could read to you is The Boy, A Kitchen, and His Cave by Catherine Contopoulis. On September 11 (9/11), which happens to be Euphrosynos’s feast day, twenty-one of us, including Earlene, crowded into the living and dining rooms of our house and together read this children’s book. And then we ate 20 pounds of baklava. Here is what Contopouolis writes about the abbot telling the story of his dream to the monks of the monastery.
"That dawn at matins, the Abbot brought the apple branch back with him and excitedly described his vision of Euphrosynos to the other monks."
"Dear brothers, I prayed last night for answers following our great discussion. And the Lord has answered my prayers."
"What could that peasant boy possibly teach us,’ said one monk, with some indignation."
"Brother, that simple peasant boy who cooks our meals and cleans our kitchen lives his life in the true spirit of Christ. He is content with all that is before him. He sees plenty in everything, even when he has nothing. He appreciates all the small things of his day – how well his spoon ladles our soup, the sweetness of a carrot. And he praises the Lord at every turn!"
"Yes, it’s true,’ said the monk who had slipped on Euphrosynos’ soapy water. ‘Even when he spilled water from his bucket and made a mess, he thanked God for teaching him a new lesson. I was so annoyed with his carelessness, yet he was able to transform the mishap into a gift from above."
"You see, brothers,’ said the abbot. ‘Our cook asks for nothing more than what is given to him. Everything in his life, each new day, is a chance to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven. Is this not what Jesus meant – that God’s Kingdom is in our midst on earth?"
"I am convinced,’ continued the Abbot, ‘that God has blessed us by bringing Euphrosynos here to us. It is we who must learn from Euphrosynos, brothers! God’s love knows no distinction of rank. Who are we to decide what or who is holy in God’s eyes? Are we not all worthy of his grace? The apple branch is a sacred sign of the boy’s place in the eyes of God. Euphrosynos’ virtues run deep – his kindness and mildness, his modesty, his pure way of thinking. Yes, he is simple, but he is honest and full of love. Is this not what God intended for us? And are we so full of ourselves that we cannot see it?"
"The monks scratched their heads and tugged on their beards as they considered all that the Abbot had said. And one by one they each agreed that the dream was a sign from God. They each kissed the apple branch in respect and sang a hymn of thanks to the Lord for Euphrosynos."
Contopoulos, Catherine K., The Boy, A Kitchen, and His Cave (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002)
There is much about Euphrosynos which illustrates to us the degrees of humility which Benedict presents and which Fr. Kenneth has so carefully and helpfully discussed with us, both this weekend and in 2008. Look at the two hymns to Euphrosynos.
"Thou didst live righteously in great humility, in labors of asceticism and in guilelessness of soul, O righteous Euphrosynos. Hence, by a mystical vision, thou didst demonstrate most wondrously the Heavenly joy which thou hadst found. Deem us also worthy to be partakers thereof by thine intercessions."
"We laud Saint Euphrosynos, the most wondrous ascetic, who took up the Cross of Christ and shone forth in humility; for by the vision of Paradise his Christ-like virtue by God was made manifest."
Asceticism and guilelessness, the heavenly joy, took up the Cross of Christ, shone forth in humility, Christ-like virtue; Euphrosynos puts flesh on the bones.
This is the value of personal testimonies: they breathe life into principles. However, because Euphrosynos lived such a long time ago it’s easy to "fictionalize" his life, distancing his experience from ours. The value of a book like Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility is that Stephen Cherry is our contemporary and his personal testimonies of encounters with himself, God, church and culture could easily be our own. As we read his words, we easily project ourselves into them and they become our own.
I confess that it took me many months to read this book for that very reason. My reading became a form of lexio as I, again and again, had to pause and digest and apply before moving on. I began reading it on Ash Wednesday in February and finished it during the Oblate Work Weekend in July. You may breeze through it in a couple of sittings, but that was not my experience. It seems Fr. Kenneth may be taking a bit longer. I believe I gave him a copy in April and by his own testimony he’s only one-third of the way through it! The book was commissioned by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, for the Anglican Communion’s reading during this year’s Lenten season.
Cherry’s metaphor is that of the determined journey of a pilgrim, intent on his goal and consumed by the passage. The pursuit of a holy humility is deliberate and not accidental or incidental. I officiated last weekend at the funeral of a much-loved uncle who, in my homily, I described as someone who lived the life of long obedience in the same direction. That is the cause of the development of humility in the life of the pilgrim who Cherry describes: a long obedience in the same direction.
I cannot read the entire book to you, or even do an adequate survey of each of the chapters. As Fr. Kenneth said last night, it is not a systematic study of the Rule, as some of the other books we have available. But Cherry isn’t shy about quoting the Rule and making it clear that his perspective has been formed by Benedictine spirituality. So let me unpack just a few bits of his writing which hopefully will complement what we’ve discussed with Fr. Kenneth.
Throughout the book, Cherry speaks of humility in terms of discipleship, both in the sense of the process of becoming Christ-like, that is, the humility required to be a student without a portfolio, and the goal, Christ’s nature, toward which we are moving.
"Being humble, then, is like trying to catch air in our hands. The faster we close our fingers around it, the faster the air spurts away. The slower that we close our hands, the slower the air spurts away. But if we hold our hands, palms up, arms outstretched, then air will come to rest in our hands. To experience humility, then, is not to grasp or strive towards it, but to rest as we seek to bless others. When we are moved from within, a humble spirit can descend upon us like that air resting in the open hand."
Worthington, E. L., Humility: The Quiet Virtue (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2007; pg. 103)
"It is a beautiful and telling image with much to teach us about the acceptance, patience and imagination that are integral to developing humility, and which are all present in the person who has become truly humble. We will need to bear this in mind as we reflect on the kinds of activities, experiences and processes that might help us learn humility and grow in Christlikeness. For growth in humility does not come through a kind of sanctified self-help program. Rather it comes from the realization that in the deepest, most important and fundamental matters we do not have the capacity to sort ourselves out. Growth in humility happens through a process not of instruction or education as such, but through openness and vulnerability. That is to say, it is grace that makes us humble. Our humility, if it exists at all, is nothing less than the grace of God in us."
Cherry, Stephen, Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011; pgs. 14, 15)
In the chapter titled ‘A Terrible Force’ Cherry uses material from Bernard of Clairvaux and Michael Ramsey to talk about the false humility of the proud, which Fr. Kenneth has already walked us through. Cherry counters with the ancient hymn of the Church which St. Paul quotes in his letter to the church at Philippi: "Let this mind be in you, which also was in Christ Jesus…" This "mind" provides us with a different way to respond to life, which he illustrates with a quote from Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov.
"At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially the sight of other men’s sins, asking yourself whether to combat them by force or by humble love. Always decide, ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you will be able to conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; the strongest of all, there is nothing like it."
Dostoyevsky, F., The Brothers Karamoazov, trans. David Magarshack (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982) pg. 376
One of my sons is a US Marine. The uncle I just buried was a US Marine, as were several of his brothers. With that having been said, I ask some understanding from any Marines present for the following statement. I frequently see on the side of semi trailers an ad for the Marines which shows an ornate dress sword. You’ve probably seen it, too. The wording on the trailer is "Earned. Never given." The way of humility turns our world upside down. The grace of God is "Given. Never earned." It is because its source is in the grace of God that humility is indeed "a terrible force," as Father Zossima says, "the strongest of all, there is nothing like it."
Cherry talks about childlike maturity: Sandi and I spent better than 17 years working in a mission which had Matthew 18:14 as its motto: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingom of Heaven." The Church has understood that the "of such" was, in a clear way, at the top of the growth scale for adults. Whatever it was that Jesus knew about children was his expectation about all Christians. We can perhaps name some of these qualities, including being trusting, teachable and, of course, humble. Christian humility is not a matter of adults living out the characteristics of babies, infants or children. That is childishness, which we are to mature from. But Christian humility is found in a personality that is willing to be reshaped and renewed by relationship with God. What makes Christian humility radical is not its immaturity. We may call it childlikeness or we may call it Christlikeness. What is at stake is the quality of the maturity.
Cherry talks about giving up grumbling and about living generously: Perhaps one of Cherry’s most powerful chapters is about shocking our systems by placing oneself in the position of a stranger. What do we do when we are no longer in control? When we don’t know the language? When we don’t know which direction is the right turn? Immersion in culture other than our own and experiencing the total dependency which we must place with others can be an experience which brings us to a new level of humility. To discover and learn about others can be a great source of bringing down the arrogance level in our own lives.
All of Cherry’s work has to do with intentionality, deliberateness about our lives, which has to do with the title, Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility. There should be a purposefulness in the steps we take.
Sandi and I actually have twin sons. As they were approaching the end of high school, I took them with me on a trip to the UK and we did a pilgrimage to those two great centers of missionary monks, Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, and Lindisfarne, on the northeast corner of today’s England. Both are islands, though Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, is accessible by car much of the time when the tides are out.
With the tides out, many of the pilgrims to the relics of the site of the community formed by Saint Aiden choose to walk across the tidal plain, known as the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’. It is marked by several dozen posts, so you can’t get lost and a few ‘crow’s nests’ for pilgrims who don’t quite make it before the tide comes in.
Disembarking from tour busses or parking their cars in the car park, people set off on the plodge, as it’s called locally, across the causeway, usually after removing their shoes and boots, making the pilgrimage with bare feet.
The plodge is a wonderful metaphor for the Christian life.
Would-be pilgrims who think they are going to be walking across pleasant sands soon find that they are walking across slippery mud.
Occasionally there is a little stream of ice-cold North Sea to wade through or a gritty stretch with lots of broken shells. In other spots, you have no choice but to go ankle deep in thick green seaweed.
"What the Lindisfarne pilgrim finds on the causeway, so all Christian pilgrims find on the journey of life. We hope to walk across warm, firm and golden sand but often find ourselves in slippery mud or mysterious seaweed. At such times it matters very much that there are people ahead of us, behind us and beside us. We need people who will stand by us when we slip and who will risk slipping to help us when we fall. Another point derives from the fact that this Pilgrim Way is tidal. For this reason it must be one of the very few footpaths in the world which is never marked by the erosive impact of many feet. However many pilgrims walk across, the foot prints are washed away every time the tide comes in…. There is a lesson in this too. Some people like to think that they are walking a new path. Others prefer the assurance that they are following tradition. Both are true when we walk the pilgrim way through life. The way of Jesus is simultaneously the way of the saints and our own special journey."
Cherry, S., Barefoot Disciple, pg. 20
In the final chapter, Cherry brings us back to the beginning of Fr. Kenneth’s talks with us, back to being humus – dirt, dust. Thou we are not yet dust, we are in between. We walk barefoot through the dust, carefully examining our steps, deliberately placing them. We are purposeful, intentional in our barefooted pilgrimage in pursuit of humility, following the Rule, as we approach the one who we wish to become like, the one who himself ended his life on earth barefoot.