Humility and Listening

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Deut 30:9-14; Ps 25:1-9; Col 1:1-14; Luke 10: 25-37

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

“Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” 

 The words of St. Augustine, written in the years just before 400, echoed today in our collect. To me, they speak of a nearly-insatiable hunger: the hunger to find our true home — a place of deep belonging, a place in which we can be ourselves and know that we are loved. For some of us, the idea of home evokes a childhood in which we were held, treasured, and loved. For others, from whom that kind of childhood was withheld, Augustine’s words describe a sharp and compelling need, an ache that never quite goes away. For all of us, however, these words express a profound hope: that no matter the gap between our lived experience and our dreams, there does remain for us a home, and that, by God’s grace, all our earthly distress becomes a goad to help us find it, or even to create it.

One of the great home-creators in our Christian tradition was St. Benedict of Nursia, whose feast the church celebrates tomorrow.  As some of you know, I spent six months living in a Benedictine monastery  and am myself under monastic vows, so Benedict is dear to my heart. More than that, I think his vision speaks to our needs as faithful people living in a time of great instability. Born in the years immediately following the defeat of the Roman Empire at the hands of Germanic invaders, Benedict, like Augustine, helped Christianity to untangle its vision of the kingdom of God from the earthly power of Rome, seeking a form of stability and belonging which could no longer be found in the State.  For Benedict, that anchor was found in monasticism — small communities of the faithful who chose to live the Christian vision in all its radical simplicity and power.  He called them “schools for the Lord’s service.”

But what kind of school? Benedict’s Rule (or guide for monks), which became the foundational text for  Western monasticism, opens with these words: “Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” Master, here, comes from the Latin magister, which means teacher or doctor.  Benedict is not invoking a relationship of dominance and servitude, but one of instruction that heals us and helps us to grow. He is speaking of communities which give the gift of a new home: a place in which we are surrounded by a love which eats away at our defenses until we can believe that it is really meant for us.  Not for us as we wish to be; not for us as we have been told we “ought” to be; but for us as we actually are, with all our mess around us. In this fashion, the human community, which is always imperfect, becomes an opening for the perfect and unfaltering love of God.

 It is a beautiful vision, and one I have found to be effective in my own life, but not one which is easy to put into practice. People are complicated creatures; we have sharp elbows and sharper tongues, and even the best of unintentionally cause one another harm.  Against all this lifetime of damage, Benedict juxtaposes two tools to cure the human soul: humility and listening.

The humility is clearly seen in the life of Moses the Black, an Ethiopian brigand who repented and became a much-revered monk and elder. Witnesses tell of time when a brother in the community had been caught in sin; the community gathered to judge him, but Abba Moses was not there. They sent to call him, but he did not come. They sent again, and, finally, he came, but before he left his hut, he took a bag, filled it with sand, and cut a tiny hole in the corner. Then he put the bag over his shoulder and went to the meeting.  When he arrived, his brothers asked, “Why did you not come?” Moses replied, “My own sins run out behind me, and how should I pass judgment on another?” Hearing that, the monks returned each to their own cell, without condemning the one who had erred. The story reminds us that, in Christianity, sanctity comes not from what we have done well, but from our knowledge of our own errors. Clinging to our own righteousness hardens our spirit and forms in us a tendency to see others as less that we are, to judge them and to condemn them. But remaining aware of our own frailty allows us to meet others on even ground— even those who have messed up their lives, even those who seem to be existential threats to what we value. It opens space for conversation and for conversion, builds bridges rather than ravines.

That conversation, however, depends on our ability to listen. Listening, for a Christian, is always a three-dimensional process:  we listen to one another, to our own heart, and to God. But where is the voice of God to be found? Benedict calls us to listen to the “ear of our heart,” but not just any heart will do. We need to cultivate our hearts until they are properly formed. What goes in shapes what goes out. A person who immerses himself in hate speech or pornography will find his heart being shaped in a particular direction; one who seeks kindness and understanding will have a very different experience.  For Benedict, as for the author of Deuteronomy, the most profound shaping comes from faithful practice in following the commandments of God, from keeping God’s word “in our mouth and in our heart.” (Deut 30: 14) If youve fallen out of practice, try taking one sentence which speaks to you from this Sundays readings and spending time with it each day. Sit with it, journal with it, paint it, turn it over in your mind. Just let it work in you.

It sounds simple enough, but reading and meditating on the Scriptures is a dangerous practice. Thomas Merton once wrote, “the Bible is a profoundly dissatisfying book”! He meant that two ways. First, that the Bible stubbornly refuses to be what we long for it to be: a clear and succinct guide for living well. Turn to the Bible for advice on any common dilemma, and you’ll find yourself immersed in stories, histories, laws which don’t seem particularly relevant, or difficult commandments which seem all too relevant. It’s not ideal. But on a deeper level, Merton meant that immersing ourselves in the vision of God makes us dis-satisfied with the world as it is. It opens our eyes to what we’d rather not have to see —the suffering of our neighbor and the world — and it insists that God is not indifferent to our plight. It teaches us to yearn for a different kind of world.

That places us in a difficult position, particularly in times like ours. Listening to the news these days is a bit like the experience of the man in Jesus’ parable: we open the door to go about our day, and are set upon by forces which exhaust us, violate our convictions and leave us feeling half dead.  Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century saint, tells a story about such a person. She saw, in a vision, a lord who sent his servant to a certain place to do his will. The servant leapt up and ran to follow the command, but immediately fell into a deep pit and was badly injured.  He moaned and cried out, but was not able to stand or to help himself, nor could he, from the pit in which he lay, even turn back to see the face of the lord. But the lord watched the servant most tenderly, saying, “Behold, behold, my beloved servant! What harm and distress he has received in my service for my love, yea, and because of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his hurt and his wounds and all his woe? And not only this, but does it not fall to me to give a gift that is to him better and more honorable than his own health would have been?” (Showings, Ch. 51.)

Julian was writing about Christ, in whom we are all enfolded, but to me, she speaks of the cost of trying to live the Gospel. Caring about people in a world which is often indifferent hurts. Trying to change systems which are intransigent hurts. Trying to live Gospel values can lead to rejection and pain. The only thing which hurts more is not trying. or living in circumstances in which integrity is impossible. That brings upon us what therapists call “moral injury”: the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of ones core values, such as justice, fairness, and loyalty.

The good news, the great good news, is that our God is not indifferent to our plight. When we struggle to do the work of God; when we are injured in spirit from staring too long at the brokenness of this world, our God sees us. The same God who had compassion on the servant lying in a pit has compassion on us when the pit is our own.  God looks upon the suffering we have endured in God’s service, and God raises us up and honors us for it. And this divine compassion is not limited to those who have suffered while doing the right thing, but extends even to those who have suffered from doing the wrong thing. That’s what the Incarnation was all about: like the Good Samaritan, God listened to our cries of pain; God had the humility to meet us where we were, taking on our flesh to heal us in the flesh; God gave us communities of people to heal us and to teach us and to help us support one another.

 And all those gifts — the divine listening, humility, and compassion which have the power to evoke our own — have already been given us. So often, we think and act as if God’s love and redemption are something in the future, something we have to earn or to seek. It’s a natural consequence of living in a world which does not look as if it has been redeemed. But as St. Paul reminds us, those gifts have already been given. God “has [already] rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 1:13-14)

My friends, that divine home, that place of deep belonging, which we glimpse now only in fragments, will gather force in us and around us when we open ourselves to the shaping hand of our God.  And so we continue, nourished by Scripture and by sacrament and by hope. “May [you] be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Col 1:9-12)


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