The first degree of humility (IV)

29 Jan. 30 May. 29 Sept.
Let us be on our guard, then, against evil desires, since death hath its seat close to the entrance of delight; wherefore the Scripture commandeth us, saying: ““Go not after thy concupiscences.” Since, therefore, “The eyes of the Lord behold the good and the evil,” and “The Lord is ever looking down from heaven upon the children of men, to see who hath understanding or is seeking God, and since the works of our hands are reported to Him day and night by the angels appointed to watch over us; we must be always on the watch, brethren, lest, as the prophet saith in the psalm, God should see us at any time declining to evil and become unprofitable; and lest, though He spare us now, because He is merciful and expecteth our conversion, He should say to us hereafter: “These things thou didst and I held my peace.”

Today’s section of the First Degree of Humility places us before two immense mysteries. The first of these is the mystery of the silence of God. Saint Benedict evokes this silence by quoting Psalm 49:21: Hæc fecisti, et tacui.  “These things hast thou done, and I was silent”. God is silent even in the face of the prideful revolt of men; silent in the face of evil; silent in the face of the blasphemies and outrages that issue forth from hell and from the mouths of men. Atheists take note of this silence and attribute it to the non–existence of God. Christians take note of this silence and attribute it to the humility of God. Atheists, hearing the silence of God, walk away confirmed in their notions of a real absence of God. Christians, hearing the silence of God, abide in it, confirmed in their faith in the real presence of God.

At times, in the monastic journey, one is sorely tempted to flee the silence of God. This is why, at certain hours, prayer before the Host is so disconcerting, so troubling. It is precisely an encounter with the silence of God, the very sort of encounter with the silence of God that so tested the Long–Suffering Prophet Job.  The flight of the monk, however, cannot be from the silence of God; it must be into the silence of God. This flight into the silence of God is not a movement in space; on the contrary it requires of one a certain immobility, a decision to remain anchored and silent in the silence of the Host, even when one feels pressed to bolt for the door and find something else, anything else, to do; or someone else, anyone else, with whom to hold what one judges to be a “real” conversation. Yes, there are certain hours when one finds the silence of the Host unbearable. It is precisely in these hours that one must resist the temptation to flee and allow oneself to sink into the silence of God that so fascinated Saint Irenaeus. It is there that one encounters the Word. Father Boris Bobrinskoy speaks to this when he says:

Not only does the word arise from silence, but it also contains silence and sends us back to the abyss of the mystery of God, beyond all understanding and all words. Silence constitutes the necessary transcendence of the word and its essential reference. (The Compassion of the Father, p. 134)

Saint Benedict makes the connection between the silence of God and His humility. The  humility of God is revealed in that “He is merciful and expecteth our conversion”; that is, He waits for man to turn to Him. Not only is God silent; He also waits for the return of the prodigal son. In the Apocalypse, God in Christ stands at the door and knocks, seeking entrance into every place from which men have excluded Him. The humility of God and His patience in waiting for men is an immense and inscrutable mystery:

Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise. Be zealous therefore, and do penance. Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Apocalypse 3:19–20)

When Mother Mectilde, in her little book The True Spirit, considers the Sacred Host, she points to the silence and humility of God, the very mysteries that Saint Benedict sets before us today. Mother Mectilde writes:

The soul who renders homage to this state [Jesus silent in the Host] must keep a profound silence with creatures and with herself, not profaning her tongue by the mad things that vanity and self–love produce. Since she has the honour of receiving Jesus in the divine sacrament, she must even, sometimes, keep silent inwardly with regard to God, by means of a humble respect that makes her attentive to the words of life that He utters within her.

Mother Mectilde identifies silence as the particular fruit of one’s encounter with the silence of God in the Host. At the deepest level, the silence of the Host is an appeal for the silence of man. God waits in silence for man to be silent before Him. Vacate, et videte quoniam ego sum Deus. “Be still and see that I am God” (Psalm 45:11). This silence in the presence of the silence of God pertains to the First Degree of Humility. It is, at the same time, the beginning of our conversion to the humility of God.

Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

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