I am slowly reading a book written by Dom Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk from the Abbey of Tarrawara (Australia), The Road to Eternal Life, a series of reflections on the Prologue of the Rue of St Benedict. With all the talk of being a good witness and yesterday’s emphasis on our destiny in Christ, I thought Dom Michael’s reflection on boasting in the Lord makes some sense for us today. I recommend the book.
“And again he says, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’.” (2 Cor 10:17 quoted in the Rule of St Benedict, Prologue v. 32)
The one in the New Testament who speaks most about boastfulness is Saint Paul. He sees boasting as an expression of an autonomy that weakens a person’s total reliance on God-that is, it weakens faith. Those who think that religion is simply a matter of conforming to the precepts of the law, or perhaps so twisting the precepts of the law so that they are comfortable, have not yet learned the art of putting their trust in God, relying on God’s mercy. They are locked into the schemes of self-perfection that they themselves have crafted. The end of such self-assurance can be only disaster. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote to Polycarp, “The one who boasts has already come to nothing”.
Because we have nothing that we have not received (1 Cor 4:7), the truth is that there is no basis for boasting. Even though, by a careful selection of available evidence, we may be able to present ourselves to others as worthy people who have done a number of good things, this is not an accurate portrayal of our lives as a whole. There may be some simple persons whom we can deceive into thinking that we are better than we are, but the reality is that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 2:23). None of us has reached the standard God envisaged in creating us to his image and likeness; all of us have fallen short, whether this is public knowledge or not. In none of us is there any reason to boast.
The only real cause for boasting is the trouble we have experienced in life (Rom 5:13). There is ground for confidence when we have been called to participate by patience in the paschal mystery of Christ-when we share in the self-emptying process by which our redemption was accomplished. Boasting is self-filling-inflating ourselves beyond our merits in order to obtain the esteem of others. Following Christ in faith is the opposite of this; it is negating the power of self over our choices and actions and attitudes. To be Christian is to play our part in the paschal mystery, to supply in our own bodies whatever was lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24).
This is why Saint Paul speaks about boasting in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14). Paradoxically, the only thing that can give us confidence that we are on the right track is when everything seems to go wrong. When all our plans and projects proceed swimmingly, we easily lose our sense of dependence on God. Although we may continue with the outward forms of religion, we have no interior sense of the precariousness of our piety. It is only when things start to go wrong-as they inevitably will-that we feel helpless enough to turn to God as the only mainstay of everything we hold dear. Boasting comes from the sort of arrogance that blinds us to our frailty. It is untruth. When the unwelcome truth breaks into our complacency, it liberates us from this deadly ignorance and provides us with the opportunity to approach God with a humbler and more appropriate disposition.
Our only boast is that we have been called to participate by patience in the passion of Christ. Monastic life in the view of Saint Benedict, is not some esoteric form of spiritual athleticism, whereby we train ourselves over a long period to perform at a higher level, one beyond our anticipated competence. Monastic life, like Christian life itself, is a matter of becoming ever more reliant on God’s mercy
and, therefore, ever more distrustful of our own achievements. Believe it or not, for some people, the only way to arrive at this point is to undergo some sort of more or less dramatic collapse.
Saint Benedict wants us to have the same dispositions as Saint Paul: our lack of boasting comes not from doubt of the gifts we have been given but from our recognition that they are gifts. In this case, thanksgiving pushes away any tendency to take pleasure in our present success and, paradoxically, to be content, and more than content, when hard times come.
Saint Paul speaks about how we have been enlightened by the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the person of Christ, but then, glorying in his weakness, he continues: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that this surpassing power is God’s and not from us. We are troubled on every side but not crushed; confused but not desperate; persecuted but not abandoned; cast down, but not brought to nothing. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in our body” (2 Cor 4:7-10).
To be living sacraments of Christ’s presence in the world we need to leave aside our tendency to self-exaltation, to step aside so that the power of the living Christ may reach out to others through our littleness. There is nothing to boast about here. Our task is to stand aside and let Christ act. Again, Saint Paul is our instructor: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to have communion in his sufferings, becoming conformed to him in his death so that, somehow, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).
(The Road to Eternal Life, Liturgical Press, 2011, p. 115-118)