Sunday, December 18, 2011

Less than Saint Augustine (Retreat 2011 reflections pt 3)

St Augustine of Hippo was smarter than you and me.

Well, most likely he was. He was a gifted theologian with a very deep spirituality in the early ages of the Church. His writings were strongly influenced by the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. His theology has influenced the Western church to the present. He is titled a "Doctor of the Church" for his wisdom and his influence on the Church.

Back to my first sentence, then. He was probably a lot smarter than both you and me combined.

That's not an insult at all, though. Why should it be? That's like saying that Einstein was smarter than the both of us combined. Or that Gerard Butler is more handsome than I. Or that Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is a better quarterback than I am (and he is, by far). It's a simple statement of fact.

In our world, we are pressured to be the best. "If you ain't first, you're last," as Ricky Bobby, the Nascar driver character from the movie Talladega Nights would say. If someone says to me that I'm not athletic (which is true), then I jump to telling myself that I'm at least smarter or kinder or less judgmental than them. If I can't beat 'em in one category, then I will in another!

Why do we do that? Because humility is not fun. Humility is to admit the truth, to concede that I'm not close to being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or that I'm not writing an essay in theology so original that it causes a whole religious movement. Ain't gonna happen. Someone can do what I can only dream of doing, and they might be capable of more than I could do even if I had years of training or education. There's not automatically a category in which I beat them by default.

That's not going to make me sad, though. I'm not sad that I won't be cast in a remake of the movie 300.  I'm not beating myself up over it. Why? How can humility, how can admitting your shortcomings, not make me sad?

Humility means stepping back from the judgment game. There's a subtle jump from admitting that Drew Brees is a far better quarterback than I would be (true) to admitting that he's a better human being than me because of it (not necessarily true). The first statement is just a fact. He has had years of training and plenty of passion to become a great quarterback. I have not, and being a quarterback isn't really high on my list of personal priorities. We are different people, and yet he is not more of a person for being a great quarterback nor am I less of a person for not being one.

On my retreat I read Dom Cuthbert Butler's Western Mysticism: Augustine, Gregory and bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life. Quite an interesting read, and it addresses the different approaches to the contemplative life as it explains what the contemplative life is. In it, Butler explains how relatively unoriginal Gregory's thought is compared to Augustine. Gregory wasn't as eloquent as Augustine (especially since Augustine was a teacher of public speaking in his younger days), his theology wasn't as piercing or creative. He was smart, of course, just not Augustine-level smart.

At first that sounds like a backhanded compliment. But how is it? How is it truly insulting to say that Gregory wasn't as smart or original as Augustine? Gregory didn't need to be as smart as Augustine; Gregory was as smart as Gregory. He put together concrete rules for pastoral care and is responsible for the Church music known as Gregorian chant. He was smart enough to do all that. Comparing him to Augustine would be silly now.

Of course, I might then say, "Still, Gregory accomplished all that! I'm not as smart as Gregory, either..." That also may be true. But what of it?

Each of us has a mission from God. We're sent into the world with a backpack of skills and talents and asked to make the most of them. Some of us will have tons of advantages, skills, talents, resources. Some of us will have less. Some of us will have very little. Having little is not an insult unless we refuse to accept what we have. I am glad that others have talents that I do not, and I am glad that they have them in greater measure than I do.

A few weeks ago the Gospel reading was the parable of the talents where a ruler gives his slaves various sums of money. My co-teacher in Sunday School and I each re-wrote it to explore the meaning behind it. I changed the ending to explore how the slave who just buried his money might have fared had he chosen a different course:

A powerful king was leaving his country for a year, leaving his ministers in charge of the affairs of the nation. But to three of his slaves he personally handed them sums of money; to one slave $500,000; to another he gave $250,000, and to the last he gave $50,000. To them he said, “Take this money, make me wealthier upon my return.”

The first slave rushed to the marketplace and quickly obtained a quantity of cloth, threads and silk, and hired women to make fine garments. The first slave knew that the ministers and their rich friends would be eager to have new clothes to show off their new stature in the nation. From the inferior cloth the first slave had suitable garments made for those of lesser means, and gave the scraps away to those who had nothing. This slave soon had a thriving business in the city and earned his master money.

The second slave took his money and hired himself a teacher so he could learn to write and read. This slave made detailed records of the goings-on in the palace and watched closely the courts of justice. He spent time debating with court scholars and learned the finer points of rhetoric and logic. Upon hearing of his master's imminent return, this slave rushed around, trying to find some profit in what he'd done. His master had demanded to be made wealthier upon his return, had he not? He had not spent all the money but he had earned little back. He soon took to teaching others in the palace for money, but did not recover all the money he had spent nor earn any extra for his master.

The third slave, upon receiving the money, trembled in fear. He was not shrewd like the first nor as wise as the second. He knew no trade well. Why had he been entrusted with anything, let alone such a sum? Looking out the window he saw the streets below. The sick, the hungry, and the poor struggled out there, while he had this princely sum. He knew he would make no money in whatever he did. In one year he could easily spend this money, and then he could face his master's wrath, but in this year he could do good for someone. He took this money, bought food and clothes and paid for the care of the sick. He couldn't keep track of what he'd spent, so the second slave occasionally helped him see what he'd done. The first slave would hand him scraps of cloth and pay for one of his workers to make garments for the poor, and the third slave gladly handed them away. Whenever anyone asked about his work, he would smile and say, “The king asked me to care for you and gave me money before he left. Our king is a good man.” He trembled when he would say that, for he knew the king was a harsh man.

The year concluded, the king returned and called his three slaves in immediately. The first presented the king with the vast amounts of money he had earned, and the king nodded in appreciation. The second handed over what was left and then pointed to the servants in the hall carrying the records he had made. “My king, here are learned servants with the records I kept while you were gone. The ministers spent lavishly, but I kept track of every thing they spent of your treasury.” The king took the tablets, and, reading them, barely covered his rage at their work.

The third slave then started to tear up as the king's fiery eyes landed on him. “My king, I am not a wise man like my brother here, not a shrewd man like my brother there. I was afraid when you gave me that money, so I took it and spent it on the poor in the streets in your name. I knew this day would come when you would find me lacking, but at least the poor for one year would find life better and know it came from your hand.” He stared down at the floor. The king was silent for a moment. To the first he said, “You, slave, you have done well. You shall serve me well in years to come. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the second he said, “You, slave, have earned me no money, but you kept watch over my household that it may be managed justly and fairly. The wicked ministers shall meet their end, and you shall take their place. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the third he said, “Slave, you knew your limits. You knew your failures and weaknesses. You were afraid from the moment I placed some of that money in your sweaty palm. You, however, took what little I had given and gave it away in my name. The honor of a man is a good name, and you have ministered in my name to those in the streets. You have many years ahead, my good and faithful servant.”  

So when you're feeling down that you're not as smart/attractive/interesting/clever/athletic/funny as someone else, just remember that you are you. Make the most of yourself for the honor and glory of God. 

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