It has been one of those weeks that seems ready made to teach me humility. In large and small ways I have found myself living into my character defects over and over and over again. Each time I’ve caught myself, I’ve wiped the dust from my knees, swearing not to take that particular road again, at least not this week, only to find myself in the same spot a day, or even an hour, later. My knees are getting a bit bruised!
During weeks like these I’m reminded of the advice our Founder gives in his rule. We will find it easier to make an offering of our whole lives to God, he says, if we can learn “to cultivate a sense of the limitations of our knowledge of even outward matters, and to treasure up instances in which our assured judgment has proven wrong.” It helps to take some of the sting out of my embarrassing (at least to me) forays into judgmentalism, envy, and hubris to recognize that these traits can be as great a treasure as all my seeming talents and gifts.
As several wise spiritual teachers have assured me over the years, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I’m reminded of a letter I received from a friend about six months after I entered the monastery. In this letter my friend told me that she realized that because of various events from my past I had always longed for a community of loving men. Aware of that need, though, I surely ought to be able to leave the monastery and live a “normal” life. I talked to a nun friend of mine about these observations. She replied in such a matter-of-fact way that I could only laugh: “So what? You think God can’t use the painful things that have happened to you to bring you where you need to be?”
Yes, of course God can. The difficulty lies in my recognition that my foibles and failures are not bad, even though they might be painful and humbling to me. As psalm 139 so beautifully says, “darkness is not dark to [God.] The night is as bright as the day.” I’m the one who has trouble seeing.
Just as I am not the sum of my failures, so I am not the sum of my successes, either. My gifts are just that: tools that I have been given to cultivate the little plot of earth allotted to me during this lifetime, to dig in my own meager sweat and love to make the world a more beautiful, just, and harmonious place. My shortcomings are no less valuable to that work. The annoying thing is that my shortcomings may actually be more valuable to my own and others’ growth than my gifts. Compost is, after all, waste that has broken down into fertile and nutritious humus. There are weeks when I seem to myself more compost than peony. Ah, well. Such is the rhythm of this life, and I’m much richer for it.
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