Saturday, April 9, 2011

Picture Not-so-Perfect

(“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”  Garrison Keillor)

Is it just me or does anyone else think their driver’s license photo doesn’t look like them?  When my new license came in the mail the other day, I stared at it and thought, “Well…in a certain light I can see a resemblance, but it definitely does not capture my essential je ne sais quoi.” 
It was about that time that a stroke of entrepreneurial genius hit me:  I could gather ten of my closest friends/donors and open a nationwide chain of glamour shot studios just for driver’s license IDs—passports, too, and maybe even mug shots.  The stores could be called something like Classy Pix 1 Minute Photos.  (Everything sounds much more sophisticated if it’s called “Classy.”) No 8”x10” glossies, just 1”x1” matte.  I’m telling you, it’s a fortune waiting to happen.  Now if we can only convince the DMV…
You might be wondering what in the world any of this fluff has to do with the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It concerns seeing the truth about ourselves.  You see, I knew that the average grocery store cashier would take one glance at my aspect on that license and never question that it is me in the picture.  Being connoisseurs of ourselves, however, we are much more discerning about the nuances of a portrait’s accuracy.  Some snapshots just don’t measure up in our own eyes even if they look like dead ringers to everyone else.  So if we sometimes disagree with other persons about that which is most apparent—i.e. our physical appearance—then how much more might we be at odds over that part of us which cannot be seen—i.e. our interior life?  In the chasm between the two echo Pilate’s Passiontide plea, “What is truth?”[i]
Anyone who has ever felt misunderstood and then spent more than 30 or 40 seconds honestly reviewing that experience can testify that we are not always very good at seeing ourselves as other persons see us.  Sometimes we cling to exaggerated negative images of ourselves and sometimes we paint a rococo-ish portrait of ourselves as paragons of virtue.  Oftentimes we regard ourselves too much in relation to our perception of other persons’ faults or favors—how I stack up against so-and-so’s goodness or badness or talents or looks or bank account or [fill in your own personal yardstick].  All of these things say a lot about how we view ourselves and only a little about how our neighbor sees us.
And if we extend the self-examination to the spiritual plane, we might also admit that mostly we haven’t a clue how God views us. 
We are awfully, terribly, ingeniously clever about bending reality to our preferred way of seeing.  No news here.  Our Scripture-writing ancestors in the faith were acutely aware of the human propensity for self-deception.  That’s why the psalmist so earnest prayed for God to help us with our vision problem.
But who can detect their errors?
                        Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from proud thoughts;
                        do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
                        be acceptable to you,
                        O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
                                                            Psalm 19:12-14
            Benedict, being a man of The Book, knew well the durability of this trait within us.  In order to help us re-focus, he urged his followers to take full advantage of the Lenten season of introspection and repentance.  Our learned saint appointed some strong lenses for the task:  prayer, lectio, fasting, abstaining from some sleep and needless chatter or other forms of self-denial that receive the imprimatur of one’s abbot or abbess (RB 49.4-7).
It sounds like a lot of effort for churchy stuff.  Why go to all this trouble?  Here are the CliffsNotes:
·         How we see ourselves is important because it will inevitably affect how we see God and how we treat God’s children and good Creation; in other words, we treat others not only according to how we view them but how we (if only subconsciously) view ourselves.
·         How other persons see us is important not only because it affects how they treat us but it also gives us clues into how we are presenting ourselves to the world.
·         How our Creator sees us is the Reality which we creatures are intended to inhabit.  It is important to know this “true self”—i.e. our “image of God”-ness—so that we may give proper glory to the One in whose image we were so wondrously and mysteriously made.

In a nutshell, it is about humility—that is, seeing ourselves as God does, and then acting accordingly.  No virtue looms larger in the Rule.  Humility can thus be called the point of the whole monastic project.  By it we come to know who we are in relation to our Lord and Savior—he who did not despise the wretched death of Good Friday in order to bring us to the resurrected life of Easter.  It is a knowledge that ought to fill our hearts with an insatiable gratitude.  It is the basis of all true worship, for it is through humility that we learn what it means to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (72.11).[ii]
When Benedict sketched out the how-to’s of Lent in the monastery, it was his way of helping us clean our mirrors.  The monastic life allows no glamour shots for the soul.  What it offers instead is a good dose of spiritual Windex so that we can see ourselves as we really are, warts and all.  Lent wipes away the soul grime that keeps us from a clearer vision of ourselves.[iii]  Like the picture on my license, I’m not always happy with what the process reveals of me.  But if I’m willing to own up to some reality and scrub away the yuck, then eventually the face that I see looking back at me will be no less than the image of God.  Sounds like a pretty good deal when you think about it.
Grace be with you,
Brother Mani bravely takes a good, hard look in the mirror

[i] John 18:38.
[ii] From St. Cyprian, “We prefer nothing to Christ because he preferred nothing to us”…an immensely touching regard for such lame creatures as we.
[iii] Note:  Even though Lenten asceticisms are part and parcel of being Benedictine, interior housework is ultimately a voluntary thing; no one can make us take it to heart.  It must be our own mature choice for conversio.  As I recently heard one preacher say, “If we don’t want to see who we are, we don’t stand in front of the mirror.”