paedagogos: humble in love


Just before I was elected prior, when it seemed very likely, as my friend Paul used to say, that the community was going to be foolish enough to elect me, I read through the very comprehensive 55-page essay in the appendix of the RB 1980 on the abbot. As some of you may know, according to the Rule of Benedict the prior of the monastery is actually the second in command under the abbot. But, as I understand it, many of the reform traditions, especially the hermit traditions, took off the top level during the medieval times, because abbots in those days were so often involved in economic and political intrigue. And they wanted their leader to be more humble, prima intra pares–the first among equals. (I like to say, all the responsibility without the jewelry…)

At any rate, the whole first part of the essay is about pre-Benedictine and not necessarily monastic leaders of communities, while the second part is all about the understanding of the abbot from Saint Benedict on. I actually read the second part first and only then came back to the first part. Not much in the second part had really touched me––mostly it just intimidated me! The only other real experience of a monastery I had had was St. Meinrad Archabbey and their archabbot, with all the high ceremony and formality, the pectoral cross and ring (which was of course unlike anything I experienced from Bruno, Robert, or Raniero). Then I went back and read through the first part of the essay, which was about spiritual fatherhood in the scriptures, about the abbas of the desert and the cenobia of Egypt, and the other early monastic experiments in Cappadocia. And right at the very end of that section I ran into an image that struck me deeply and has stayed with me since, from Gregory of Nyssa. It’s from a treatise entitled On the Christian Mode of Life. When Gregory writes about the obligations of leaders, those who are “in charge,” he compares them not to a father––he doesn’t use the word abba. He uses the word paedagogos. He says the leader of a Christian community ought to be a paedagogos. Sometimes that gets translated as a “skilled educator,” but actually in ancient times among wealthy families the paedagogos was a slave that the parents hired to instruct the children. And that’s what the leader of a Christian community, a Christian family ought to be––a paedagogos.

I thought that was beautiful and, obviously, very much in keeping with the gospel. In the Rule of Benedict, even as in some other earlier Christian writings, there can be a kind of mixed metaphor of Trinitarian language; Jesus himself is sometimes referred to as a father. But Clement of Alexandria, for instance, refers instead to Christ too mainly as a paedagogos. Jesus is the slave who the father (in heaven!) has entrusted with the task of instructing the children. I think of at least two biblical references. The first is Matthew 24:45 when Jesus himself says, ‘Call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father, your Father in heaven.’ And then of course Paul’s great kenosis hymn which we sing every Saturday evening––that Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at but emptied himself and took the form of a slave––could we say that took the form of a paedagogos?––humbled himself obediently accepting death, even death on a cross.

Actually, though, it’s certainly not far from the mark to say that this same attitude of humility is one of the hallmarks of any monk as far as St. Benedict is concerned, not just the abbot. Benedict devotes one whole long, very difficult chapter (7) to what he calls the 12 Steps of Humility. One of the reasons that chapter of the Rule is particularly salient in this context is because he quotes this very gospel that we heard today, right at the beginning: ‘Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’[i] The language that Benedict uses is very hard, even shocking, for us moderns to hear, especially when so many have been wounded by hierarchical abuse and family dysfunction, and trained in the language of emotional intelligence or recovery. But still, there it is: Benedict asks us to quietly embrace suffering, even in difficult and unjust conditions, to be content with the lowliest treatment, and, especially, to be convinced that you are inferior to all. That is hard language to hear. We have to keep in mind here the crucified Jesus and the suffering servant, but even for a mature person all that has to be put in the context of a real sturdy mature ego and also a healthy image of God. The other steps are a little easier to nuance and contextualize, for example, remembering that God is always watching, which goes along with not concealing sinful thoughts from your spiritual father––rigorous honesty. That calls to mind for me the now-famous phrase of Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” If I look at how hard I have struggled in my own life with all the help I’ve had, it should be easy to be humble or at least not to be proud or arrogant or judgemental. Benedict also tells us that we should manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our heart––which includes things like controlling the tongue, not being given to ready laughter, and speaking gently––so that one’s humility is evident everywhere, at liturgy, on a journey, in the garden, in a field. This cannot possibly mean that we are supposed to put on a show, ad oculos–for everyone to see how humble we are.

But I think the real key is in the admonition back in the second and third step: to love not your own will––just as Jesus says of himself, ‘I have come not to do my owthn will but the will of the one who sent me. For the monk that means to submit to legitimate authority, do nothing but what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and by conversatio. Saint Benedict makes such a big point throughout the Rule tying humility to obedience, as if they go together and together form the basis for all monastic life. But obedience isn’t just obedience to the abbot or to the Rule, and this is where I think we get some real clarity. Benedict names an entire chapter (71) Ut oboedientes sibi sunt invicem––“That they may obey one another”! He says that “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers.” And then, in the next chapter, he quotes Romans 12:10, They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what they judge best for themself, but instead what they judge better for someone else.” That’s real humility’ it’s tied to obedience, tied to service, tied to charity. (I think this is why our own Saint Romuald puts even his hermits under the Rule too, to ensure that even solitude is based on obedience and humility, and so, ultimately, to lead to charity.) This is the hallmark of a Christian monastic community––that we are each a paedagogos. And ultimately this is not a negative thing; it’s positive. Humility means I care about you over me. So, not just humility, but humble obedience, even mutual obedience.

But I want to go one step further and say that this is not just about the monastic impulse: the Christian impulse itself is marked by this tendency, this positive kind of humility. It applies to a parent, a nurse, a laborer, a cook. In that same essay by Gregory of Nyssa, before he writes about the leaders he is writing about every day Christians. They should be “ready to do whatever is confided to them with hope and eagerness; they will do it as Christ’s servants for the good of the brothers and sisters.” Then he too quotes today’s gospel: let them take the last place and be the servants of all. …such persons must be subject to all others and serve their brothers and sisters as though they were their debtors.” It’s all more positive than negative, not so much about walking around looking humble and much more about our stance in the world as a follower of Jesus’ way, as an imitator of Jesus––being a servant. Not just humble––humble servants.

I don’t want to simply pick on Mr. Trump (it’s actually a little too easy), but every time I see his slogan––“Make America Great Again”––it makes me think not just about what’s wrong with this or that party, or this or that candidate, but what’s generally wrong with our whole attitude and outlook on life, in the political realm and out, and what Christianity specifically has to offer the whole discourse, particularly when it comes to leadership. I think particularly of John 13, for example, which Jesus shows us how to be a leader: he tied a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet! That’s how a follower of Jesus is in charge of others, by being their humble servant. I notice that we don’t seem to use the phrase “public servant” much anymore for politicians. In a broader scope, if we were really a Christian nation, as some like to claim, we would be asking ourselves what it means to be the leader of the free world in this light––how are we the servant of the world? How do we manifest humility in our bearing on the global stage? I don’t think that would go over very well at any political convention! One more step: I like to apply this to nature too. Some argue in the name of the Bible, specifically Genesis 1:28, that we human beings are supposed to ‘have dominion over all the earth.’ Fine. But we are supposed to exercise dominion over the earth, over nature, the way Jesus exercised dominion––humbly. It is not about beating creation into submission! It is not about forcing nature to be something that it is not to serve our insatiable appetite for comfort. We are supposed to be the slaves even of the fish and the fowl and the cattle; we are supposed to be servants of every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. The Father has entrusted them to us as paedagogos––and we will be answerable to the Father.

If it starts out with the fear of God it ends with the perfect love that casts out all fear, as Benedict himself quotes at the end of the chapter, and perfect love includes love of God and love of neighbor, and love of the world that God loves so much. Ilia Delio says it beautifully this way: we are supposed to be like our Creator, holy and perfect as our God in heaven is holy and perfect; and Jesus has shown us exactly what the Creator is like. “To be like the Creator… to be like God, is to become humble in love.” Not just humble––but humbly obedient to each other, humble servants, humble in love.

[i] Lk 14:11, 18:14; RB 4:1.

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