Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ladder

“Brothers, divine Scripture calls to us saying: Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted (Luke 14:11, 18:14). In saying this, therefore, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride.”[1] Benedict goes on, using more Scripture to prove his point, to tell us that pride, in whatever way it manifests itself, is sin to be shunned.

Pride – what a damnable, insidious, and socially accepted thing that we have to deal with! This is the reality that faces us, one that must be faced if we are to move beyond commonplace life in the world, in order to move into the deeper reality of being earthed in the fertile soil of our true selves and in God. “Here we are given one of the most profound explorations into self-knowledge, that true self-knowledge that is not in the least narcissistic but leads me on to the true self and so to God.”[2]

I confess that I’m too easily filled and overcome by pride, the first item on the list of the seven capital (deadly) sins. I need to be often reminded that “In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.”[3] Merton goes on to say, “People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world.”[4]

Life is a struggle and it’s hard to live in the world and use the things of the world without becoming like the world. The current active in the world pulls us along. The economy that is at work in the world keeps us engaged in its life. It harnesses us with its laborious accoutrements whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. Inflation afflicts us with hard burdens. There is always a need for more straw in order to make the necessary bricks that we need to meet life’s demands.

Benedict doesn’t appear to be lessening realities of necessity where day to day life is concerned. Nowhere does he advocate sloth or laziness. Work is as regular and normal an aspect of Benedictine life as prayer is. But even a devoted life of prayer can find itself subjected to pride. Anything done well can become a source of pride. So here in Chapter 7, the longest chapter in the Rule, Benedict addresses Capital Sin Number One with the original twelve step program devised as a means to overcome an otherwise debilitating human problem. He doesn’t call it a twelve step program. He refers to it rather as a ladder that happens to have twelve rungs. It’s not a tall ladder. It is, however, a long way to the top, a lifetime of climbing that involves a lot of stepping up and stepping down.

“In verse 6 Benedict brings us to the image of the ladder, that ancient classical symbol of unity and integration. It reaches from earth to heaven, and for Benedict, of course, the ground on which it was placed was the monastic enclosure, but for those of us outside any religious community, it can just be taken to mean the place of our ordinary life and work, wherever we may find ourselves. It was St. Augustine who gave us those marvelous words, ‘Do you seek God? Seek within yourself and ascend through yourself.’ Like the child now weaned I have to take on the responsibility of growing into my own maturity. There can be no escape and no postponement. It lies with me.”[5]

This isn’t an issue that we can put aside or maneuver around. It is an issue that we are, after all, living out moment by moment, day by day, situation after situation. We are, in all cases, either striving toward some form of self-exaltation or endeavoring toward humility. Striving toward self-exaltation hurls us into a dangerous downward descent. Endeavoring toward humility[6] carries us toward heaven and the very heart of God.

[1] RB 7:1-2
[2] Esther de Waal, Life Giving Way, p. 57
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 47
[4] ibid
[5] Life Giving Way, p. 59
[6] Phil. 2:5-8