In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (1Pet5:5-7).
The prideful make themselves a stranger to divinity, not because of any decision by God to reject them, but simply because pride is a manifestation of an egocentricity that is not consistent with the divine life. Divinity is eternal and other-focused, while ego is temporal and pride is all about an egocentric focus on my own narrow agenda and reputation.
What Divinity does do is love the temporal of us from deep within our eternal being in God. As we experience this in the context of our relationships and the events of life, a wounded ego is healed and humbled. As we consciously grow in this humble life, grace can then move and have its being more and more in the whole of us.
The ego is not the mighty and loving hand of God. A life lived as if ego were this hand is a life clouded with anxiety. We cannot be what we are not. Because of this the prideful are caught in a cycle of attempting to generate by force their own affirmation of being. The humble simply experience this affirmation as divine gift.
Perhaps a tyrant is someone who is caught in this cycle as they attempt to relate to others from a position of authority. Anxiety, pride, and unrealistic expectations (of themselves and others) simply get the better of them.
Some, puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and thinking of themselves as a second prioress or abbot, usurp tyrannical power and foster contention and discord in their communities.
Benedict has observed a particular structure of communal life that can encourage the tyrant in the proud. He has seen monastic communities that have a community leader decided for them by people who are outside the community. When the representative of that leader in the community (the prior/prioress) is decided by these same ‘outside’ people, then that representative may have some difficulty in understanding and keeping to their role; they think of themselves as a ‘second prioress or abbot’. As they work in their new role, their humble lack is exposed.
This can happen to the best of us. As we take on new ways of doing things, ways that we are not yet familiar with, ambiguities and inner tensions expose themselves in our self-consciousness – mostly (it seems) through unreal expectations of ourselves and an attachment to what others think of us – all of this can expose to us and others where we are in the humble life.
And it can happen in the ordinary of life: someone points out our absent-mindedness when it comes to washing up; the way we coast at work; our lack of empathy in relationship. All these things and more can ‘offend’ our pride and expose the way we hide it from ourselves.
Over the course of their lives God seekers come to accept that authentic leadership has its foundations in living, being, and participating in the divine. For this to happen we must learn to let go into the divine, learn to live in the divine life consistently, and be a servant to it and in it. We must become consciously humble – the ongoing work of a lifetime opening to grace.
..as their thoughts suggest to them that they are exempt from the authority of the prioress or abbot.
This first part of chapter 65 mentions thinking a couple of times and the effect that prideful thinking can have on the way we are with others.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers ask us to grow in the observation of our thoughts. Our thoughts are often the manifestation of deeper motivations (or passions) that shape what we do and the way in which we do them. Observing thoughts can lead to an emerging awareness of these motivations. As we become aware of them we can then name them. This naming helps grace to heal the deep of us and to integrate our conscious selves (ego) with our deeper being in Being. This is part of our growth in love.
One day there was a festival at the Cells, and the brethren were eating in church. Now there was there a brother who said to the servant, ‘I do not eat anything cooked, but only with salt.’ He who was serving said in a loud voice to another brother before everyone, ‘Brother so-and-so eats nothing cooked, bring him some salt.’ Then one of the old men got up and said to him, ‘It would have been better for you to eat meat in your cell than to hear this said about you in front of everyone.’ (A saying of the Desert Mothers and Fathers).
This old man is the elder of which 1 Peter (above) speaks. He is well experienced in the subtle workings of pride and is grounded enough in humble love. The question here is what were the motivations and the thinking that influenced both the brother and the servant? In any event, what was said allowed pride to manifest during a communal event, with the potential to contribute to an undermining of the work of love in and within the community members present.
Ideally observation of thoughts comes before we allow thoughts and motivations to affect what we say and what we do. The proud tyrant, however, is caught up in reacting with their thoughts and self-centred motivations to people and situations. We all do this. We say things without thinking, or at least without being aware of our thinking. This happens as our friends, our children, our partners ‘push our buttons’ – the inner tyrant rises and reacts. Our relationships can then suffer.
Practice of the Rule provides communal space and loving support for us to experience the inner reactivity of the tyrant and be guided in the processing of it. Benedict knew only too well what damage can be done when communal leadership itself is caught in tyrannical machinations.
Meditators can even use the mantra as an ongoing ‘attitudinal focus’ for thoughts outside of formal meditation times. A mantra used in this way, especially one grounded in the heart, can repeatedly bring attention back into the heart. This practice (as encouraged in a meditating community) further assists in the integration of the conscious mind with the heart (or being). As we detach from our thoughts and ‘listen with the ear of the heart’, reactivity decreases and the tyrant inevitably fades.
Meditation, in effect, de-powers the tyrant as we discover that we are not our thoughts. The tyrant needs us to believe that we are our thoughts, to be identified with then. In this reactive state there is no space for a growing awareness of what motivates us and the tyrant can then go about its business. As communities of people meditate together our inner tyrant can find itself more and more exposed to the graceful truth that exists when people are committed to the loving growth of each other.