In this topic of “avoiding heroics” I am mainly giving tribute, even when I don’t say so, to what Roberta Bondi has written on “Humility.” You’ve found my non-blog blog, and perhaps it would be good to find her book.
One form of heroicism (my word, not hers) that she names is a focus on good actions that are large at the expense of those that are small. I remember a scene in Brother Sun, Sister Moon in which one of the early Franciscans is distracted by a pretty woman as the brothers are walking through Assisi at night. Francis catches him following her for a better look. In the conversation that follows, Francis counsels the brother that it’s okay to be realistic about oneself, in this case about capacity for celibacy. If you’ve seen the movie recently or know more about Francis than I do (not a hard trick!) you might know who this other brother was or what Francis really said to him. Still, I remember it as a suitable portrayal of how self-understanding can make itself available in simple events.
Bondi speaks in this regard of setting high goals for one’s own practice of spiritual disciplines and then failure to realize those goals leading to abandonment of any sense of the value of the disciplines. In my third year of college I set myself the goal of reading everything written by two particular Christian authors. On some sort of personality-test scale of likelihood to follow through on plans, I probably rate nearly as low as one can go, so I didn’t carry out much of this reading plan. (Just as well, I can say now that I would not extend my intellectual bargepole toward either of those authors.) It became a step in the self-knowledge that any use of spiritual disciplines, reading or prayer or whatever, requires.
Around the same time as my non-reading of those two authors I was thinking about whether I should aim for a career in Christian ministry. It was difficult to imagine visiting widows while the idiocy of the Vietnam War was going on and when the greatest need of most widows I knew, it seemed to me, was to give up on their inherited racism. Of course, I felt guilty for not having ended the war yet, but I have since figured out that I am far better at visiting widows than I would ever likely be at ending wars.
Another form of heroicism Bondi speaks of is “the need to be above reproach”:
Humility has no self-image to maintain. It does not, out of embarrassment, hide its sins from itself or others. It knows already that human beings are prone to sin, and it is ever watchful to escape it. But when sin occurred for the ancient monastic [i.e., any one of those people whose experiences and writings Bondi draws on], there was, theoretically at least, no temptation to deny it, no temptation to beat the breast and say, “How could I have done such a thing?” The answer was known already. “I did it because I, too, am a creature subject to sin….”
There have been many ways to justify perfectionism theologically, and all of them run the risk of supporting the two ways of rejecting God’s grace: pride, which is self-justifying, and despair, which is self-condemning. These are the two either-or / no-middle-ground responses to the either-or of perfectionism. Regarding my sin as an aberration from a supposed normal purity is pride, and regarding sin as normal is despair, and they are mirror-twins. But, as in Jesus’ story about the prayers of two men in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14), despair can at least show the way forward to justification by grace.
I have found it helpful to keep at the ready a response to any conflict with another person. Normally, after any such conflict people generally resort to the well-worn justifying tactic of asking “whose fault was that?” and finding ways to answer “not me.” When emotions are jumpy, that defensive internal dialogue can continue for quite a while. But, if I am doing that, I am thereby getting stupider by the moment.
So my ready response, which I’ve had long enough for it to be habit, is to ask and answer the question differently: if I ask “did I do anything wrong?” then I can answer “yes.” However the dispute went, I did do wrong. Whether the other person also did wrong or the relative weight of our wrongnesses are not questions I can address in the same way. I can be sure of my “yes” to the question as I’ve phrased it because I know myself at least to that degree. And that answer to that question is far more useful to me than any of those other questions because it gives me an escape from stupidifying defensiveness and from self-justification, which is the smoothest route to hell.
Roberta C. Bondi, “Humility,” chapter 3 in To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pages 41-56. The quotation is from page 51.