“Like a Weaned Child”—Seeking Humility

Reflection

About four and a half years ago, I was struck by a kind of imbalance in my life. I felt the need to “do something” to cultivate more fruitful spiritual practices to ground my days. I’d accumulated a lot of knowledge and information about life in the Church—its liturgy, theology, history and biblical study. But my spiritual life seemed weak. I did not pray regularly or practice service to others.

As I was casting about for guidance on what to do, I remembered somebody somewhere saying something about having made a good retreat at a monastery in Schuyler. Thanks to Google, I located the Web site for that community’s Benedictine Mission House and found the schedule of retreats. One title beckoned to me: “Experience the Life of a Monk for a Weekend.” I signed up and prepared to go, not really knowing what to expect. But that decision was for me a risk, inviting me to step out into the unknown.

For a few months at that point, I’d been trying to use some different devotional resources. I don’t remember now which one I was using for my morning prayers, but I do remember reading the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of Psalm 131 in my room at the retreat center after I’d gotten ready for the day.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131, NRSV)

That seemed to be a good fit for the hours ahead. I was preparing for a taste of a life with rhythms and practices and notions unfamiliar to me. I knew the bell calling the community to prayer would ring soon, so I left the room to walk from the retreat house to the oratory to join the brothers for the Office of Readings.

The small card in the pew stated the page numbers for the office in The Liturgy of the Hours and said that today was Saturday of Week I. As the seven resident monks and the scattered guests began praying together, we came to the first text: Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever.

(Psalm 131, The Liturgy of the Hours)

A coincidence? Perhaps. But there’s nothing unplanned about the cycle of the psalms in the Divine Office. What if I’d chosen a different book for my devotions? What if the retreat were on another weekend? What if …?

What did happen is that the same psalm appeared twice to me in the same morning as I was seeking God and His guidance for my life. That’s how this day started for me. Later that same day, while walking from the oratory to the retreat house, another man on the retreat told me he was a Benedictine oblate and explained what that meant to him. That conversation struck me and stuck with me too. When I got home from the retreat, I Googled some more and found out about Sister Phyllis and this chapter. The retreat, that man’s witness, and my exploration became the first steps on my journey to becoming an oblate.

This short story explains why Psalm 131 is special to me. Through it, the Holy Spirit worked to change my life, to lead me down a new path, to guide me to seek admission to this “school for the service of the Lord” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prol. 45). As a happy consequence, my ears always are perked up to listen for this psalm and my eyes remain vigilant to watch for it in my readings.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the depths these brief verses contain within them. Often I find that when I pray this psalm, I am aspiring to a state that does not yet describe my life. When I look unflinchingly at my own actions and thoughts and feelings, I often see that my heart is proud. My eyes are haughty. I am preoccupied with things beyond my control. I drag my soul down into the depths of turmoil. I am restless, kicking against God’s embrace and trying to escape from His lap.

Pride and arrogance, feelings of superiority, self-appointment as judge of others—these are the spiritual challenges I often face. So thank God He guided Saint Benedict to turn to Psalm 131 for the biblical grounding of the first thoughts recorded in Chapter 7 of the Rule, the chapter entitled, “On Humility.” Saint Benedict writes:

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself
shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself
to be on guard when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me.”
But how has he acted?
“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:1–4. The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans.
Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press.)

Here Saint Benedict uses portions of Psalm 131 to reinforce our Lord’s teaching from Luke’s Gospel—those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. The Rule teaches that pride and humility stand in opposition to one another. So long as I take pride in myself, I cannot be humble. And since our Lord desires for His followers to be humble, like Him, my pride stands in the way of following the Lord.

So, is there hope? How can one who battles with pride, with high regard for oneself at the cost of looking down upon others, be infused with a spirit of humility? Saint Paul tells us the way. He writes to the Church at Rome, saying:

Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

(Rom. 6:3–4, NAB).

Our baptism makes us participants both in Christ’s death and burial and in the promise of His resurrection to life anew. This is the path of discipleship, the road we follow as oblates, who, like all Christians, seek to live as Christ does.

Saint Paul has another way to describe the trajectory of Christ’s life—and ours. In his letter to the Philippians, he writes:

Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Phil. 2:5–11, NAB)

This helps me to see why humility so often eludes my grasp, why I cannot achieve it on my own. The path of humility that Christ blazes for us is one that we travel only in obedience to Him. It leads inexorably to death. But the good news is this: because we have been baptized into that death and because we live by the promise of new life, we can trust the Father’s promise that we will share in His Son’s exaltation through the working of their Holy Spirit. When the great day dawns, we will bend the knee with all who gather around the throne. We will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

In the meantime, we have Saint Benedict’s Rule to guide us along the path between the font and the grave. He turns to Psalm 131 and advises us to emulate the Prophet, who says,

“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:4).

That is good enough for this mean time in which we live. The Father has delivered us from sin through the waters of baptism; we feed upon His Son’s body and blood in the Eucharist; and, like weaned children, we find solace and nourishment for our souls in the Spirit’s embrace in the arms of Mother Church. Amen.

Authorship

This reflection was written by David Frye, who made his final oblation in 2009.

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