Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Today we conclude the Sermon on the Plain. The Sermon answers a question that everyone, then and now, always asks, “How shall I live?” The Sermon is about the development of one’s character. Character exhibits the direction of self in the world marked by what we do and might count as reasons for our actions. It guides our use of free choice.
That guidance comes in the form of words and examples. So, we are warned about relying on blind guides. The “woe’s” we heard two weeks ago warn of living primarily for the satisfaction of desires for pleasure, possessions, and achievement-recognition. Since secular culture encourages these, they can form a beam in our own eye that compromises us as witnesses to the story of Jesus Christ. To profess His deeper, more enduring values while choosing to live for the satisfying is what earns the label of “hypocrite.” A hypocrite’s discrepancy between belief and behavior reveal what she really cares about. Followers of Christ care about the Father “with all their heart, soul and strength” because He “brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” We must remember that.
To do this we need to “know the story”; the story is made up of words. The words we speak reveal the story that guides us. As Jesus says elsewhere, the words and stories we take in do not defile us; it is the words and deeds we put out that defile us. The story guides our choice of actions. Thus, we act for certain reasons and not others. Those reasons form one’s character, one’s stature as a follower of Christ.
St. Benedict take’s this seriously. His first step of humility, the art of being human, is to remember. He stresses our speech in Ch. 5 on Silence and in Steps 10 and 11 in Chapter 7. I believe he addresses our use of the tongue under humility because the tongue is commonly used to show pride. Pride is often a refusal to suffer, a refusal to be humbled by life experiences. As Sirach says, “In tribulation is the test of the just.” “Being humbled” is remembering the primacy of God and one’s dependence on His favor. As one classic spiritual author[i] put it, we tend to speak out of whatever appeals to the senses, to whatever gives satisfaction. This includes our tendency to say whatever “goes along with the crowd” or the prevailing opinion. It helps us feel that we are in control and can escape suffering. These reveal shallowness which is incompatible with true devotion. True devotion is what Jesus taught and exemplified. As creatures we live in touch with reality when the Great Commandment and its reason is the guiding force of our life.
What guides us, then, and is shown by our words is our knowledge of what is ultimately good and important in life. This question is fundamental to deciding how one should live. It must simply be more important than our suffering; knowing that difference between what causes suffering and what matters most gives wisdom.
Then we must know how the life or the world, including the monastic world, works in relation to the ultimately good or important. It commonly comes up when one is suffering. Words can reveal cynicism and bitterness, or they can show an acceptance of one’s limitations. Wisdom is the ability to make distinctions and that is shown when suffering is met with humility.
Sirach tells us “the fruit of a tree shows the care it has had.” Jesus tells us that care yields either good or rotten fruit. So out of this knowledge of what matters most and how one’s world relates to it comes knowledge of self, of the care one has given to the development of her character as a follower of Christ. Our words reveal it to self and to others.
“…from the fullness of the heart,
the mouth speaks.”
[i] Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, The Spiritual Combat.