To be fit for the great task of life, we must learn to be faithful in humble tasks. (John Main)
The sixth step of humility is that we are content with the lowest [position] and most menial treatment, and regard ourselves as a poor and worthless worker in whatever task we are given… (The Rule of St. Benedict)
At Meditatio House we share around the chores, those things that need to be done to maintain a household. We share in the cooking, the cleaning, and yard tasks, anything that needs doing. This is thoroughly in keeping with the ordinary practice of living, and consistent with the Rule of Benedict. We use the Rule as a guide for our communal commitment and experience.
The Rule of Benedict is a wisdom text for the Christian spiritual life. The Rule is a guide to the integration of communal and personal living so that both serve a human life growing in love and the experience of this love as divine. It is a practical document that sees growing into love as an applied, ordinary, self-forgetting, and relational happening (1).
The three basic dynamics of the Rule are prayer, reading, and work. Prayer is central and has a communal foundation; reading is food for the intellect and heart; and work (anything from writing to lawn mowing) asks for a focus that is less on self and more on the needs of the community at hand. These three dynamics are, of course, interchangeable: prayer is also a work and work, when done with present moment attention, is prayer; reading can also be a work of attention, and a prayer (Lectio Divina). And so on.
One task we take turns at doing is dealing with the rubbish and food scraps. There are three bins in our kitchen: one for plastics, one for paper, and one for non-recyclable rubbish. There is also a couple of ‘bucket bins’ near the sink that receive compostable scraps and non-compostable scraps. Once a week everything gets sorted into separate containers which then get put out onto the street for collection. There is even a street container for non-recyclable scraps (other scraps are put in the compost out the back). This scrap container can be particularly messy and smelly.
Of all the household tasks we do, maintaining the rubbish and preparing it for collection would have to be the most menial.
The Rule sees this sorting of the household rubbish as part of our growth in self-knowledge and humility.
It is a task that has the potential to help create in someone a deeper appreciation of their own humanity. All a person need do is be faithful to the task and gently attentive to their responses and reactions whilst doing it. As we work with our bodies we can become aware of what God is doing with our soul.
Our lives, like scraps and rubbish, can be rather commonplace and somewhat messy. The conscious mind (or ego) can tend to avoid (largely via repression) the ‘mess’ of us and be inclined to reject the reality that we are just another ordinary, everyday, commonplace person.
Yet contemplative prayer and community can help us to see that the ordinary and everyday is where we experience our deep, mysterious and divinely given uniqueness. It is a uniqueness that the ego does not create, although the ego does try to cover it up with its own version of uniqueness (a version that generally wants to avoid the mess and rubbish).
The discovery of our unique selves can involve facing, experiencing, and accepting our own psychological mess. This process engenders humility. Ego shuns humility because it would mean this repressed mess is becoming conscious and being integrated (faced, experienced, and accepted). Meditation and community living assist this integration via their focus on keeping us attentive to God and our deep selves in an other-centred context.
Psychological integration that happens in other-centred environments (one such as a prayerful community) means the slow death of egocentricity. This can be quite a challenge for us.
Egocentricity is that pattern of life where a person has been fooled into the belief that ego is the centre of consciousness and must remain as such if the person is to survive and thrive. The hidden assumption is that all of life’s happenings must first pass through the prism of the conscious mind. For this to even have a chance of happening ego must exert lots of energy to maintain the illusion that it is the centre of our universe. We are all, to some extent, egocentric.
When our inner mess starts to leak into our conscious mind (as it does) this is a threat to ego’s command and control illusion. So it pushes back with repression and more attempts at control. This can last only so long. As our mess seeps in, ego’s control falters. As egocentricity is threatened this gives opportunity for a growth in humility. This is why egocentricity sees humility as weakness: humility is about the de-centring of ego. And as humility grows, it lays the ground for a healthy maturing into other-centredness and God.
Without humility there can be no authentic transformation in God and no discovery of our true selves in God. A lack of humility is a sign that we are still too caught up in the operations of egocentricity.
The root of the word ‘humility’ is the Latin word humus, which means soil or earth. In other words, to be down to earth, being realistic, honest and truthful, to avoid the temptation to act as if we are the divine centre of the universe (2).
Food scraps, though messy and smelly, are tomorrow’s rich humus.
Doing menial and messy everyday tasks can run counter to ego’s attempts at avoiding the mess of life, its own de-centring, and humility. Continuing in these menial and messy tasks, then, is important if we are to continue away from egocentricity and into the heart of God.
Sorting the rubbish is a down to earth practice. It can encourage in us a developing self-honesty. In this way it is not unlike meditation. Meditation is about engaging in the daily, down to earth practice of experiencing and embracing the truth of life; doing so faithfully with diminishing expectation. This can sound like a waste of time to an ego that wants enlightenment yesterday and on its terms.
(1) The community at Meditatio House produce a blog called The Rule of Benedict: Reflections From Christian Meditators. Have a look.
(2) Peter Ng, ‘The Contemplative Executive’, in John Main: The Expanding Vision (29).