Humility and Discernment

Good morning.
This morning’s reflection continues the consideration of dispositions for living discerningly. ~ John

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“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.”
1 Cor. 3: 18-19

Simon answered, “Master, despite laboring through the whole night we caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.” When they had done so, they caught so great a number of fish that their nets were beginning to burst. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and assist them. They arrived and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. When he saw this, Simon fell at Jesus knees. He said, “Depart from me, Lord! I am a sinner!” He said this because amazement had overcome him and all his companions at the catch of fish they had made.”
Luke 5: 5-9

One of the things that psychoanalysis has taught us is that we cannot presume that we see things as they are. In his brief biography of Sigmund Freud, Adam Phillips writes: “Our vision, Freud showed us, is sponsored by our blind spots; what we are determined not to know frees us and forces us to know something else.” The somewhat astounding claim of Freud is that our unconscious is actually “how we see”. So, in Paul’s terms, the person who considers him or herself to be wise is a fool because (s)he foolishly believes that (s)he sees reality as it is. The “fool” is wise in the recognition of the limit and partiality of her/his vision.

In his autobiography, Theodore James Ryken wrote: “I led a worldly life from the age of fourteen or fifteen until the age of nineteen when, after powerfully being put in my place, I turned toward God, fell in love, and put myself in His service.” The promise of the serpent to Adam and Eve was “you shall be as gods.” The return to the proper order of things requires then that we cease to strive to be godlike and allow experience “being put in [our] place.” Today’s gospel reading from Luke affords us an insight into the nature of that reorientation.

One of the great themes of Luke’s gospel is that of “the great reversal.” In the use of the terms “Master” and “Lord” Simon is recognizing the need to be put in his place. And his proper place is that of the sinner who stands “in amazement” or in awe and wonder in the presence of the Lord of all. In the introduction to his commentary on Luke’s gospel, Luke Timothy Johnson writes of how the gospel writer illustrates through the principal characters of his gospel how “God reverses the poverty and powerlessness of the human condition.” It is those who know their true place, like Mary and Simon, who come to know the power of God in and through them.

There is no true discernment of God’s will for us without what the spiritual tradition terms humility. And, much to our dismay, knowing our true place requires that we first of all recognize how little we understand and even see (i.e. in Paul’s terms, what fools we are). What we see is in large part “sponsored” by what we are refusing to see. This is why we see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and fail to see the beam in our own. At the moment that we realize that we are

sinful, that is that we are always, in large part, groping in the dark, we begin to see a bit more fully.

In practice, what this means is that we must always, first of all, temper our own sense of urgency and righteousness. It may be best not to do or say what is perfectly obvious to us. We must look and listen to what is outside of us, to allow in what would counter our own perspective. This why it is best to act in communal obedience to reality rather than by our own lights. A strength of truly communal and collaborative work is that it brings together, and even transcends, the partial perspectives of each of us as individuals.

. . . when a good person rests only on his littleness in the most lowly part of his being and admits that he has nothing and is nothing and can do nothing of himself–being able neither to persevere nor to progress in virtue–and when he confesses that he often fails to practice the virtues and good works, then he is admitting his poverty and need and is thereby forming a valley of humility. Because he is humble and in need and because he admits his need, he manifests and laments his need before the goodness and mercy of God. In this way he becomes aware of God’s sublimity and his own lowliness, and in this sense he becomes a deep valley. Now Christ is a righteous and merciful sun who stands in the highest point of the heavens, that is, at the right hand of his Father. From there he sheds his light on the valley floor of humble hearts, for Christ is always moved by a person’s need when that person humbly manifests and laments it.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, B

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