Wednesday, 24 April 2013

On being a feeble spirit


All virtues can be twisted into vice, even humility.

Thus it is Good that I recognize myself, deeply and with full conviction, as a feeble spirit; as not one suited to high status in an ultimate sense; as - at best - aspiring to be a messenger-for and helper-of those who wield authority; but not myself an authority.

This feebleness can become, often enough does become, an excuse for idleness, self-indulgence and aiming low - but the primary recognition of the truth, the reality, of feebleness is a Good thing, in and of itself.



Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Well said. False humility is indeed a trap and an odd sort of pride, but true humility is the only road to God and to all virtues up to heroic virtue.

I think the following book by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, an 18th Century capuchin, translated by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan in 1903, details pretty much the Catholic doctrine on the subject:

The Crow said...

The toaster analogy again.
Useless, but pretty, until plugged into the source. The weak and useless thing becomes something with purpose, when connected. With all the power of the grid flowing through it.

dearieme said...

On being a feeble spirit

Has someone been watering the gin?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - If the gin has been watered, I wouldn't know; being feeble, I don't drink ethanol (except of the eucharistic variety).

tgj said...

As Sylvie says, it is not necessarily just an excuse to aim low; it can actually be pride or vainglory. One takes pride in not being proud, and then uses it as an excuse for not trying. Two errors for the price of one, and no benefit.

There are some general vices in the Orthodox tradition that are not related to any other vice, but act as broad spiritual maladies. One is despondency, which is essentially spiritual laziness, and another is insensitivity, which is essentially non-spirituality that, in a supposedly spiritual context, generally comes with much talk about spiritual things. St. John Climacus writes about these in "The Ladder," describing an example of insensitivity as "reading about the judgement and smiling," and "reading about vainglory and being vainglorious while actually reading." Essentially it is a lack of interest in repentance, i.e. actually forcing oneself to change.

Significantly, St. John ascribes it to stubbornness and a lack of willingness to change, not a lack of ability. For Westerners, and educated/intellectual types in general, one can also attribute it to a culture of spiritual insensitivity. One has to force oneself to stop thinking in ways that are, for lack of a better word, anti-mystical. Otherwise the failure of language to capture things provides an endless source of paradoxes and other intellectual catnip that prevent one from even beginning.

Speaking about spirituality in anything but the simplest terms, for one who knows full well that he is not even particularly spiritual, has to be one of the most obvious forms of the disease. Seeing oneself in an advisory role is worse, and thinking that this is humility is worse still. One is not likely to end up advising anyone who can learn anything from you; one will end up attracting people who like to give advice that they aren't living up to themselves. People like me, for example. The question is not whether the realization that I am either doing what you are doing or else *accusing* you of doing what I am in fact doing regardless of what you are doing, will humble me. The question is whether I will stop doing it. It is possible, but I would have to resist the temptation to advise you on something that I do not even understand myself.

In other words, one does not really make progress by talking to people who are about at the same level as oneself, or by musing aloud about one's own current state and basking in the glow of recognition. One makes progress by getting as close as possible to people who are as far above oneself as possible, and never, ever trying to advise them on anything.

In general, I find that Orthodoxy always puts the emphasis on how one should use any situation to further one's spiritual growth. If you are not a saint, be humbled by the saints by trying to emulate them, failing, and trying again. If you are a wonderworker, be humbled by the activity of God, because you are not actually a wonderworker; God is just using you, and everything is a test. The more you advance, the more humble you get--the more you say without saying anything, the more of an authority you become without trying to be an authority, without wanting to be an authority. Mostly you are just not doing things based on your own will. You tell people to repent because the Mother of God tells you that you should, not because you think it is a good idea, even if you think it is a bad idea for whatever reason. Extrapolate this down to every person who is more spiritual than you, has more (real) authority than you, whether in writing or in person. If you want to help others, find the ones who can help you first.

The point and the purpose of Christ, of Christianity, of salvation, is spiritual growth and personal transformation. I find that Orthodoxy contains some really crackerjack psychologists in the sense of those who really know the ins and outs of the soul, its weaknesses, and its ability to overcome them with the help of Christ. But one really does have to be willing to throw everything else away.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - Thanks for these comments. What you describe is how things were, but from 1917 this system began to die, and it is not clear to me that anything of it now remains viable.

For example, Fr Seraphim Rose said there were no authentic Holy Men (Spiritual Fathers, starets) in the USA, and I have never heard rumour of such persons in the UK.

In the end we are forced to make a personal decision about spiritual authority - it is a personal decision to defer to the hierarchy.

When there is a tradition of spirituality, as in Russia up to 1917, then we know where to turn. When the tradition has been broken...

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

When the tradition has been broken...

Catholic tradition is not anymore largely known and respected but it has never been broken, according to the Jesus' promise. The spiritual treasure of the Church is still there on the lamppost for us to grab; it begins with confession (repentance). And even if we don't know directly and closely holy persons to ask for help along the way, whatever else is the Communion of Saints for?