Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Rasp

There is a sense of romanticism about monastic spirituality that draws us to it. It is, in a way, something like the first glances, thoughts, and feelings that lead to a first kiss, those first steps that develop into a lifelong love relationship. This love affair with monastic spirituality, like any true love affair, is an act of the will that involves not only the giving of ourselves but also the giving up of ourselves.

Being overly convinced of one’s own importance, being haughty and filled with self-pride, is to stand aloof from one’s true identity, from the true self. To uncover, discover, understand and develop the true self is not to diminish our human value or potential but to liberate it. In this liberation we dare to remove all the masks and costumes that we hide behind and dress ourselves in.

Without liberation from the false self we remain lost wanderers traveling the desert sands within ourselves. “To be ‘lost’ is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[1] Aloof from our true selves we are unable to know and enjoy the fullness of life that makes itself known to us through contemplative union with God.

I will never be the best model of myself until this contingent ego has been slain. This is not a simple matter. The contingent ego will always possess the ability to resurrect itself. Constant vigil must be kept against it lest it arise afresh from its grave with a vengeance and overtake us in its strength.[2] It is difficult though to engage this enemy in conflict when we fail to recognize it as a mortal enemy! The inability to recognize this enemy, at least in my opinion, is one of the tragedies of life in our modern society where self importance is so often viewed as though it were a virtue.

Benedict, and his Rule, rides into the scene of my life to rescue me from the self that I spent decades making of myself, from the self that my own contingent ego would otherwise continue making of me. The seventh step of humility[3] is, at first, difficult to accept. It cuts directly against the grain of my contingent ego. His words are at first like the teeth of a rasp designed to dig deep into the excesses that hide the rough image hidden beneath it.

I want to back away from these sharp, biting teeth. I do have that choice. Benedict, however, tells us early on to not be daunted by what we encounter in this journey.[4] When I realize that Benedict is seeking only the best that is within me, a best that still lies beneath a crusty mantle formed by life’s varied imposing forces and my own misconceptions, I also realize the necessity to resist backing away, to resist grimacing and gritting my teeth. Rather, I find myself willingly leaning into the forming, fashioning work of the rasp.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.38
[2] Colossians 3:9, 1 Corinthians 15:31
[3] RB 7:51-54
[4] Prologue 46-49