Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Week 19 (Year 2), Tuesday -- 12 August 2008

Readings: Ezekiel 2:8-3:4; Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14

Over the next three days you will be looking again at the present reality of the life and mission of the congregation, of your community. It is a happy coincidence then that the gospel readings for the next three days are from Matthew 18, the discourse on the church or the community discourse. We will see how Jesus and the early community spoke about and experienced the present reality of their life together and we will see how quickly difficulties associated with that shared life began to appear.

It has become common for us to speak about four pillars of Dominican life – prayer, study, preaching and community. I came across a reference in the writings of Humbert of Romans where he speaks of the four essential elements of Dominican life – for him they are prayer, study, preaching and penance. So in the 13th century there was penance where we have community. So we have substituted, for something hard and bitter, something sweet and wonderful, instead of penance, community life! Our life together is penitential. We knock up against each other, unwittingly hurt each other in many ways, there are the slings and arrows of life together and it can be very difficult.

But it keeps us in reality. A human being living alone might be tempted to create a whole world out of his or her own head. When we live with others we cannot do that – there are people around us to remind us of many things and it is better that it should be so. And community life is also a great strength. We are wiser together than we are alone. We are stronger together than we are alone.

Living with other people helps to keep us humble, in touch with the reality about ourselves. Humility is a dangerous virtue to try to talk about. The most helpful account of it I have heard was from the doctor treating me for bronchitis in Rome many years ago. Somehow we got talking about humility. She suggested it be understood from the meaning of ‘humus’, the word from which it comes, and which refers to the soil or the ground. To be humble is to be lowly but it does not mean allowing other people to treat me like dirt or wanting them to walk on me. Rather it means allowing God to plough the ground of my heart and soul again and again. It means being ready for God to turn over and churn up the soil of my heart and soul so that new life may come. It means always being ready for that, not saying to myself ‘I am now complete, finished, arrived’. The ground needs to be ploughed again, and again, and again. Sometimes we will be inclined to say ‘oh dear, not again’ but this is what humility requires.

To turn and become like a child: this is what humility requires, Jesus says. What does it mean? The child is open, ready, looking forward, expectant for what is yet to come. And to be humble is to be like that.

Another very helpful thing about humility I heard in a preaching class when I was a student. We were practicing preaching, and one of my fellow students, Donal Roche, used this statement, that the humble person compares him or herself only with God and thereby knows his own nothingness and his own greatness. We are inclined to compare ourselves with each other: ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ But it is not a good idea. Either we will think we are better than others or we will think we are worse than them and there is no future down either road. Instead the humble person compares herself only with God. In that light she will see that she is nothing. But in that light she will also see the greatness that God is creating within her.

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