The Personalist Project

Lately at weekly adoration I've been re-reading I Believe in Love: a personal retreat based on the teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux, by Fr. Jean d'Elbee. It's a great book. I endorse it whole-heartedly. 

Yesterday, though, a section in the chapter on desire, humility and peace struck me as missing something. Fr. d'Elbée says, "Since the fall, we are all proud men." 

Having become acutely conscious of the "slave side" of the master/slave dynamic of the fall, I balked a bit. Not everyone's prime temptation is to pride. Some of us—and women in a particular way—are rather more tempted to be slavish—to tolerate or even solicit domination, because it's easier than being responsible for ourselves.

Fr. Elbée goes on to reflect on the contrast between human pride and Jesus's self-emptying love, first in stripping himself of the glory of his divinity to become a helpless infant, and then in allowing himself to be condemned, mocked and crucified by blasphemers. Now comes the passage:

I assure you that it will help you more than anything else when you are forsaken, wrongly judged, calumniated, or rejected to think of His humiliations...He was infinite innocence and purity. We are all guilty. Whatever be the injustice which falls on us, we can always tell ourselves that we have merited it, if not at the present time (since I have called it an injustice), at least by our past faults.

To practice this is a difficult thing; not to protest, not to take offense, not to complain. Under the pretext of dignity, of justice, what hindrances we place in the way of humility! The majority of hurts, offended feelings, grudges, and bitternesses in life with others come from this obsession with our rights, this need for esteem, so strongly woven into our "self." He who honestly puts himself in the last place is not astonished to when others put him there, too.

Remember that item about the new Swedish approach to the problem of prostitution I posted about a while back? Among the things that struck me there was the idea that traditional laws against prostitution had addressed the problem from a basically male perspective. The new approach had consciously taken into account the female perspective, and that had made all the difference. (Previously, the law had treated acts of prostitution as transactions between consenting adults. Now it addressed the element of exploitation involved.)

Now, I in no way mean to suggest that the female perspective is better than the male perspective. I'm not that kind of feminist. Rather, what I want to say is that any approach to a social problem naturally needs both perspectives in order to be completely human and fully adequate.

It's true in politics and culture; it's true in ethics and spirituality.

I propose that the recognition of the implications of this side of the dynamic is the main ethical "discovery" of the entire modern period.

King vs. subjects; management vs. employee; haves vs. have nots; first world vs. thirld world; whites vs. blacks; adults vs. children; healthy vs. sick; men vs. women; clergy vs. laity. 

I propose that in any case of human conflict where there is a power differential, the one in the position of power should be especially concerned with humility. He should call to mind his existential situation before God; he should examine whether he is showing due regard for the rights and feelings of those in his power. He should beware the temptation to "lord it over" them in any way—physically, psychologically, financially, emotionally, verbally. He should scrupulously refrain from preaching humility to them. Though he may imagine himself to be "speaking truth," in reality, his "instruction" or "advice" serves as a power tactic—a discrete manner of inducing submission. Their moral call is likely very different. They may have a responsibility to stand on their rights, draw boundaries, refuse to be dominated.

If you can't see it yet, think about an abusive husband pointing his battered wife to Ephesians 5. Think about white preachers in the antebellum south waxing eloquent on "slaves, obey your masters." 

Keep this in mind too: one and the same person can be culpably obsequious in one relationship and culpably domineering in another. Bullies are usually first victims of bullying. A man who is humiliated by his boss at work is often brutal to his children at home. Women who feel powerless in relation to men, not infrequently become raging feminists in revenge.

If we want to break the cycle of violence, then we should go ahead and preach humility to the powerful. But we should take very great care not to suggest to the weak that it's wrong or spiritually sub-par to stand on their rights and dignity or demand justice or cry out against oppression.

I'll say more. I'll join with the Pope in calling for the development of a "feminine" theology and spirituality to complement the beautiful, but perhaps too-predominantly masculine spirituality of the tradition.

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Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 16, 2015 10:28am

As often happens, I had another thought after I posted. One of the striking features of St. Therese's spirituality, which Fr. Elbee draws out beautifully in his book, is its note of confidence in front of God.

St. Therese, who lived an obscure, entirely uncredentialed life in a convent and died young, has been named a Doctor of the Church.

I propose that in her theology, characterized by a remarkable sense of freedom and confidence, freshness and modernity, we find exactly the complementarity I am referring to.

In and through her we see how the lowly are lifted up.

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