Before I get to the “heart” of the matter, there’s a few things I want to mention. Last Thursday a car drove into a yard with its horn blowing. This is always a little annoying. Then I thought, “Maybe it’s the census taker.” I am not sure why I thought this – it had been a month or more since several people had e-mailed me to beware of fake census takers who might rob me blind. So, as I walked out the door and down our ramp, I kept repeating to myself, “Name, rank and serial # only,” just in case. Out from the car popped a lady declaring, “Your friendly neighborhood census taker.” She gave me the envelope with the census in it and asked me to verify the address. (Did I dare?) I am a little worried about this census. On the envelope our road was wrong, our town was wrong and our zip was wrong. (Well, it was the right zip for the wrong town they had.) So every line was wrong except “Resident”. She wrote the corrections in a big book, then I wished her fun censusing. She said, “It is not fun driving around on these lonely roads all by myself.” If she had been a regular reader of this blog, she might have read Father Chiapa’s thoughts on our “lonely roads” and had a whole different attitude about her census taking. The 6 billion plus of the world don’t know what they are missing! I am glad that the United States does not following the old Roman Empire custom of having each citizen return to the city of his ancestors. This census would really be a burden if I had to lead a donkey that Mom was riding on somewhere. Soon Mom and I will be officially counted in the 2010 Census. Seventy years from now you can access the information we put down on our form. That’s the law.
I think I might be the most surveyed American. Two years ago during the election time, I was surveyed quite often, and often the exact same questions were repeated. Since then telephone surveys have continued. One surveyor told me that I had given the best answers she had ever heard. I guess practice makes perfect. I’ll have to add that comment to my resume. Fairly recently I was taking a survey about Morgan County medical services. The surveyor would ask a question, I would say I needed a little time to think about that, and she would say that she would just put down that I thought everything was fine, giving me no time to think. She must have been being paid by the survey. The most recent survey was designed for those 18-34, but the surveyor went ahead and did the survey with me. This one was supposed to be about my driving habits, but it seemed to be mostly about drinking and driving. I was asked how much I thought a DUI would cost me. I said $250. Then I asked her what the right amount is. She said she didn’t know because she had never had a DUI. I think it is always good when being surveyed to turn the tables on the surveyor.
Getting closer to the “heart” of the matter, I was thinking back to DAC Athletic Directors meetings of old. One year the meeting fell on Ash Wednesday. Every single A.D. told me I had something on my forehead. Then I also had to explain to them why I would not be eating the lunch. One from a Christian school made some remark about Catholics. I asked, “Don’t you do penance and fast?” The response: “We are a resurrection people.” I wish I had had the following in hand for each of them ______________________________________________
From a conference given by Abbot Andre Louf.
When I was a novice, a French Abbot visited us and gave us a lecture on humility. He spoke about the seventh degree of humility – the monk must think of himself as the last of all and the most unworthy sinner. “Naturally,” he says, “this is a great task, and yet it can be achieved.” I was listening with all my ears. “It is simple,” he says, “we need only to realize: I am really worse than that criminal or murderer, for had that murderer received the same graces as I, he would have made much more profit from them.” But I ask: when a person speaks like this, what does he mean? What is his position? How do we know we have received greater graces? Perhaps it is a fact that to be a murderer is the greatest grace! Are not the murderers, the sinners and the prostitutes to enter first the Kingdom of God? The word of Jesus is very simple and very enlightening. It presupposes that there a break-through can occur, that grace can take its stand precisely over weakness, that it is allied with this weakness.
Only the one who touches rock-bottom, the ground of his being can be spontaneously and deeply true, and truly humble. Our deepest need is not attainable by will-power. Grace has its point of insertion in our weakness at the point where we are helpless. Somehow, there must take place a break-through to our deepest weakness. Then at last a beginning can be made.
Perhaps the real decadence should be seen first, and before all, in our inclination to live in pursuit of a lofty ideal [of] human perfection, which, in actual fact, stands as a screen between us and our weakness. We would then necessarily lose contact with grace which can only operate in our weakness. A saying of Kierkegaard is relevant here: “The greatest Christian heresy is to believe that the opposite of sin is virtue. No, the opposite of sin is grace.”
Ascesis means in Greek “to exercise oneself.” Is this an exercise of one’s strength, a test of one’s possibilities? I don’t think so. Ascesis means a self-exercise in grace, and because grace is only, and always, rooted in our weakness, therefore this ascesis is, and must be, an exercise of our weakness, an acting out in oneself of the mystery of weakness and grace. The ascetical life is an exploration of our own weakness in the concrete.
An apothegm: Someone poses Abba Moses the question: “What is the value of our fasts, our vigils, and our obedience?” (This is a typical question, i.e. why practice asceticism?) Abba Moses replies: “The aim of fasts and vigils and obedience is to discourage a monk, so that he may give up self, that he may be led into humility.” This is quite remarkable! He is to feel the extent of his own helplessness in this way and so come to the conclusion: this is really beyond me. The apothegm goes further: “When he bears this fruit, a monk touches the heart of God and God comes to the rescue with His miracle.”
God takes over with His miracles! Every form of true ascesis must somehow bring a monk to this zeropoint, the point where his ability fails, where he is confronted with his extreme weakness and at which he can do nothing further. His heart is crushed and broken to become in this way a cor contritum (contrite heart). Along with his heart go all his human plans for perfection. The power of God is now able to step forth and renew the whole man. Then ascesis becomes a miracle, a continuous miracle, in this battered and crushed heart where one’s own weakness is joined to the power of the Lord. I’m convinced that the only ascesis possible for any follower of the Gospel consists in this actualizing of our poverty and weakness to the point where we turn to grace as our only hope. This is the way of humility.
Jezu, ufam Tobie.