[re-post from 2015]
Fraternal correction, properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. — St Thomas Aquinas
On our third session my very first spiritual director, at my request, taught me about humility. (What was I thinking asking him about that?) After reading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ back in 1989, the whole idea of humility seemed completely repulsive. Kempis’ description seemed to me to be a kind of spiritual self-loathing or canonized low self-esteem. Yuck. I just couldn’t get how it was a healthy human attitude. My director smiled, and said, “Are you sure you want to go there?” I said, “I don’t know, do I? You’re the director!”
He went on to describe humility as the foundation of everything meaningful and good in life, principally because it is the willingness to face the truth about yourself, others, the world and God, and not hide from it. And if you can’t face the truth, nothing good can happen. Especially, he said, humility is seeing the truth of who I am called by God to be, set right next to the truth of who I in fact am. “Only then,” he said, “will you know both where you are and where you need to go.” “But,” he added, “you can’t achieve this virtue by mere self-determination and force of will. It takes a relationship for humility to emerge.” He continued at length,
If you really want to grow in humility the rest of your life, you must have at least one trustworthy and wise person with whom you can be absolutely truthful about yourself; especially to face the parts of life that are fearful or painful to look at. But here’s the linchpin: you need to be willing to allow this person to be brutally honest with you. If you don’t have both the give and the take of this relationship, you simply will not be able to see the whole truth.
Not having such a person in your life is a breeding ground for secrecy and isolation, which are the playground of the devil. We human beings are masters of rationalization and self-deception. We spend our lives building elaborate fortresses to protect our fragile egos, built on pathetic delusions and disfigurements, afraid that if anyone sees who we really are, and speaks truth into the musty shadows, we will just fall apart. That’s a lie!
All addiction recovery groups get this point really well — addiction feeds on insulation from all personal accountability and honesty, and is terrified of the truth. Addiction is built on a network of lies. And all sin is addiction. But can you see where humility comes in? Humility allows you to take that step of admitting powerlessness, of the need for God’s grace; especially God’s grace in a human face.
I always begin my spiritual direction sessions with my director saying, “Love me enough to tell me the truth.”
He paused as he saw my pale white face, and then said, “Are you with me?” I nodded. This was heavy for me. “Okay,” he continued, “so this is how we will work in our relationship here. Don’t blow smoke at me, no sugar coating, no BS. I already know you’re full of pride and arrogance, envious and slothful. I can already see your skeletons hidden in the closet, the fragility of your ego. And sorry to say, I’m not impressed. You’re not much different from anyone else, or from me, so get over it. And let’s be very clear: if you ever feel that you have to impress or please me, play games in presenting yourself to me a certain way, our spiritual direction relationship is over. Done. A total waste of your time and mine. What I think of you, Tom, is really irrelevant. We are here to get at what God thinks of you and where to go from there.”
I felt shaken by such directness, and strangely liberated.
To my director’s point, 27 years later I would say with great conviction that having that kind of person in my life has been the single most important ingredient contributing to my ongoing mental and spiritual health. Whether that “trusted other” has been a spiritual director, a friend, my wife(!), a counselor, Confessor or a mentor, these people have given me the time and space needed to “face the music” and live in the way of discipleship Jesus articulates in John 3:19-21:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
Whenever I find myself tempted to hide things from my wife, for example, I know I’ve just found my danger zone. In this regard, James 5:16 catches it well: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” That’s hard as hell, but it’s the only — I mean only — way to freedom. As in, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). What a gift of love that is!
Having such relationships of accountability in life allows God’s remedying judgment to be passed on me now (and not just on Judgment Day; John 12:31!) so that I can abandon now everything in my life that prevents me from living in freedom, truth and love. God’s judgment is on sin, Satan — the Father of lies — and death, and inasmuch as I allow myself to live under the enslaving power of these dark forces, I live under God’s judgment. What a blessed judgment of God! Judge away! Alleluia! God desires nothing other for me than to be unshackled, to live in the freedom of His children and not as a slave. “You’re the Judge…set me free!” God as Judge is really God as Redeemer, Savior and Liberator. Divine judgment is mercy for those who wish to be free, as mercy is love encountering evil and overcoming it.
All of the servants of truth in my life do me the great favor of mediating to me God’s judgment of mercy. How awesome it is that every work of God is always, in every instance, ordered to bind me closer to others. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” to me means to humble myself before that trusted other so they become “grace in my face.” Yes, indeed, and let me say in parting that all of these people in my life who so effectively expose me to the light, who help me face reality in the light of God’s love are able to do so only because they themselves live that way. Because, nemo dat quod non habet, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”
Two years ago, a priest who teaches at the seminary, who is in his 80’s, came to me to review his course evaluation and get my feedback as his Academic Dean. Dear God, the man is a saint with twice my teaching experience and more wisdom than I will ever have. Anyway, when he sat down to discuss it he shared with me the changes he had implemented last year based on my critical feedback, and said without an ounce of discomfort, “You really helped me improve. I appreciate it. I always want to be better for the seminarians. You see, you can teach an old dog new tricks [laughing]. Okay, so now let’s hear what else you think I can improve on this time…” I said, “Bless me Father for I have sinned…” We laughed.
But I wasn’t kidding. Humility makes you feel humble.
We are made in weakness so that we might supply for each other, for the power of a God who is love is only made perfect in weakness. Amen.