We Must Transcend Ourselves

We Must Transcend Ourselves September 27, 2017

2006-02-13_Drop_before_impactAnd he said this, “If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it.”[1]

Reading this saying for the first time, it would almost appear Anthony is being far more legalistic than normal, making unusual demands of monks to demonstrate the quality of their ascetic profession. It would seem that monks are being told to be very meticulous in all that they do, remembering the tiniest of details of their day to day lives, so that they would be able to tell their elders all that they have done. Thus, if they are truly self-aware, they should be able to know how many drops of water they have drunk, and how much they have walked out of their cell. Likewise, by giving such details to their if they had gone astray through extravagance and excess, or likewise, if they had become too strict on themselves and were hurting themselves through extreme ascetical disciplines.  Moreover, what is said here could be seen as an adaptation of what Jesus said when warning us of our the dread judgment to come: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-7 RSV).

There is, to be sure, some value in what he said; part of the ascetic profession is being self-aware, and while it is possible some could become as self-aware as Anthony described here, the literal words themselves are not exactly the point. Rather, the focus is not on the deeds, but rather on what lies behind the deeds, the right spirit which is needed, a spirit of humility, realizing that there is always something more we can do to perfect ourselves in this life. There is always something greater we can achieve, and so if and when we think we have attained greatness, we can then look at this saying and be reminded that there is more we can do, requiring extraordinary focus and attention to details. If we think we are perfect than we shall be able to do as the perfect could do. Our mind would be unclouded, our will strong, and we will be able to die to the self and live as authentic persons in the world, knowing full well what we are doing, speaking only what needs to be said and not more, drinking and eating and sleeping and moving around in what accords to the perfect harmony of the way of the cross, knowing to the fullest extent of what we have done. There would be nothing which clouds our recollection, and nothing which weakens our will, so we would find ourselves perfectly free: if we have not attained that level of perfection, there is always more we can do, more we can judge ourselves upon, and so we can and should keep ourselves humble, recognizing the good which we have done without denying room for further improvement.

Our concern should be to follow Christ in the proper spirit; our words demonstrate the quality of our conviction, but so do our actions. Our inordinate passions and the vices they produce must be overturned by us. This can only be done with the help of grace, never by ourselves on our own work alone. We can and should die to the self, but we will need something then to build us back up, lest we find in the elimination of the vices the destruction of our own good as well. Whatever bad habits we have, we must fight; it might take a long time, indeed, our whole life to overcome them, but if and when we do, we must realize we have only begun the path to perfection. It is not just the elimination of vice but the practice of actual virtues which is needed for true spiritual achievement. If we think we have done all that needs to be done, we will find our pride will turn us back around and create new and just as destructive vices which keep us imprisoned in our falsely-constructed idea of the world.

Through this saying. Anthony is reminding his audience we need to transcend ourselves, we need to transcend what we think is the norm, and judge ourselves from that transcendent goal so as to keep ourselves humble and pliable and open to correction. We must remove the evil thoughts and desires seeded in the treasury of our unconscious psyche, as St. Hilary indicated: “The Lord taught that all our perverted thinking stems from vices of our nature by saying that it is only from an evil treasury that evil can be produced.”[2] If we have within us a treasury of such evil seeds, it is our pride, our self-seeking egotistical self, which takes those seeds and waters them, leading us unto great evil. For this reason, if we want to be perfect, we must overcome that pride and with it, dry out the seeds of such evil habits.  And so, iinstead of focusing on the good which we have done, Anthony reminds us we should see the good which we cannot yet achieve and use it as a means of refocusing our energy to following the path of salvation all the way to the end.

While spoken for the sake of his follow monks, the wisdom contained in this saying attributed to St. Anthony can be applied to all. We must be open to perfection, never stopping short of it; instead of looking at the examples of those who are far from perfection, who we have surpassed in our deeds, we should look at the extraordinary examples of those who have attained extraordinary holiness and use their holiness as our guide. Then we will never confuse ourselves to being greater than we are.   We will find ourselves pliable and able to be helped by our spiritual director and God himself as they reveal the next spiritual perfection we should aim for and achieve in our walk with Christ.

[Image=Drop of Water Before Impact, by Roger McLassus 1951 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 9.

[2] St. Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew. trans. D.H. Williams (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 148.

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