The first degree of humility (2)

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27 Jan. 28 May. 27 Sept.

Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels. This the prophet telleth us, when he sheweth how God is ever present in our thoughts, saying: “God searcheth the heart and the reins.” And again “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men.” And he also saith: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off”; and “The thought of man shall confess to Thee.” In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be unspotted before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity.”

Tomorrow we shall enter into the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel; a few days later we shall keep the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels. It is fitting, then, to review Saint Benedict’s references to the angels in the Holy Rule. First, in Chapter VII, we see the angels descending and ascending Jacob’s mystic ladder; then, later, in the same Chapter, we see them reporting our actions to God. In Chapter XIX, Saint Benedict tells us that the angels are present with us at the Divine Office. We sing the divine praises in the company of the angelic choirs.

The first sentence of today’s portion, with its reference to the angels reporting to God on the lives of men, appears to be inspired by a a third-century text of the New Testament apocrypha known as the Visio Sancti Pauli or the Apocalypse of Saint Paul:

You see, ye sons of men, that the whole creation has been made subject to God, but the human race alone sins before God.  On account of all these things, bless God without ceasing, and yet more when the sun is setting.  For at this hour all the angels come to God to adore Him, and they bring before Him the works of men, of each what he has done from morning even to evening, whether good or evil.  And one angel goes rejoicing on account of man when he behaves well, and another goes with a sad countenance.  All the angels at the appointed hour meet for the worship of God, to bring each day’s works of men.  But do ye men bless God without ceasing.  Whenever, therefore, at the appointed hour the angels of pious men come, rejoicing and singing psalms, they meet for the worship of the Lord; and, behold, the Spirit of God says to them:  Whence do ye come rejoicing?  And they answered and said:  We are here from the pious men, who in all piety spend their life, fearing the name of God.  Command them, Lord, to abide even to the end in Thy righteousness.  And there came to them a voice:  I have both kept and will keep them void of offence in my kingdom.

And when it came to pass that they went away, there came other angels with a cheerful countenance, shining like the sun.  And behold a voice to them:  Whence have ye come?  And they answered and said:  We have come from those who have held themselves aloof from the world and the things in the world for Thy holy name’s sake, who in deserts, and mountains, and caves, and the dens of the earth, in beds on the ground, and in fastings, spend their life. Command us to be with them.  And there came a voice:  Go with them in peace, guarding them.

Moreover, when they went away, behold, there came other angels to worship before God, mourning and weeping.  And the Spirit went forth to meet them, and there came a voice to them:  Whence have ye come?  And they answered and said:  We have come from those who have been called by Thy name, and are slaves to the matter of sin. Why, then, is it necessary to minister unto them?  And there came a voice to them:  Do not cease to minister unto them; perhaps they will turn; but if not, they shall come to me, and I will judge them.  Know, sons of men, that all that is done by you day by day, the angels write in the heavens.  Do you therefore cease not to bless God.

After speaking of the mysterious angelic commerce between heaven and earth, Saint Benedict quotes four psalms. Saint Benedict would have us know that no thought of ours is hidden from God, and that our innermost movements are known to him. “God searcheth the heart and the reins” (Psalm 7:10). “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men”(Psalm 93:11). “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off” (Psalm 138:3). “The thought of man shall confess to Thee” (Psalm 75:11). The son of Saint Benedict is, at every waking moment, and even in the hours of the night, aware of the presence of God. This awareness of the presence of God at every moment and in every place compels the monk to make of his life an uninterrupted service of the Divine Majesty, a perpetual adoration. Adoration “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24), however, requires a pure heart and clean lips (Psalm 23:3–4). This is why, after speaking so insistently of the presence of God, Saint Benedict concludes with these words of the psalmist:

Et ero immaculatus cum eo; et observabo me ab iniquitate mea.
Then shall I be immaculate before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity. (Psalm 17:24)

Like Isaias in the temple, the monk who seven times a day, and once during the night, approaches the Divine Presence, will, sooner or later, be pierced through with a terrrifying consciousness of his sin.

And I said: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people that hath unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of hosts. (Isaias 6:5)

What is the monk to do? Should he, like Saint Peter, say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8)? Or should he, like David, say, “Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels” (Psalm 50:12)? If he makes his own the words of Peter, Our Lord will answer him, saying, “I am not come to call the just, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13). And if he makes his own the words of David, Our Lord will answer him, saying, “I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness, and I will cleanse you from all your idols. And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you (Ezechiel 36:25–26).

If, like Isaias, the monk remains in the temple, resisting the temptation to run away, and Old Adam’s foolish impulse to hide from the gaze of God (Genesis 3:8) , God will do for him what, through the ministry of an angel, He did for Isaias. He will take away his iniquities and cleanse him of his sin.

And one of the seraphims flew to me, and in his hand was a live coal, which he had taken with the tongs off the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquities shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed. (Isaias 6:6–7)

A monk is pleasing in the sight of God, not because he boasts of a spotless record, but because he remains at his post in the monastery, fully exposed to the face of God, even as we sing at Lauds on Thursday in Psalm 89:

Thou hast set our iniquities before thy eyes: our life in the light of thy countenance. (Psalm 89:8)

The radiance of the face of God penetrates the secret places of the soul; it cleanses what is soiled, burns away the ugliness of sin, and restores the loveliness of grace. The man who experiences this casts himself into the humblest adoration and wants to remain there. “For better is one day in thy courts above thousands. I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners” (Psalm 83:11).

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