Radical Self HonestyOne of the primary ways we deepen our relationship with God, and how our humanity grows into the freedom and fullness of life it is called to, is through ‘self-knowledge.’ Perhaps it is even more far-reaching to say that it is through the path of conversion, which is the main thrust of our vow of ‘conversatio’. In one of my recent chapter talks I noted the desert story of Abba Poeman where it is said that ‘every day he made a new beginning.’ We begin the new day not with the same issue that was plaguing us the day before. In other words, we have not ‘let the sun set on our anger,’ on our resentment, on our festering hurt, on our harsh judgments, on our presumptions, on our incessant murmurings and irritations. No! We make a new beginning by engaging in the process of our conversion, by finding the needed insight or simply turning, turning away from any of these things to the One who will bestow on us ‘truth and grace’, liberation from this kind of bondage.
Some years ago I gave a chapter talk on an excellent article by Columba Steward, OSB entitled: “Radical Honesty About the Self: the Desert Fathers”. It is interesting to note that Michael Casey in his book on humility called Living In Truth has a chapter on ‘radical honesty’ basing himself on this article by Columba Stewart. Indeed, honesty about ourselves makes us humble. In fact, can we imagine humility without living this ‘honesty’ at any given moment of our lives? Stewart begins his essay by saying: “Fundamental to monastic ascesis in the formative period of eastern monasticism was the practice of a disciple’s ‘manifesting thoughts’ to an elder for discernment. All that lay hidden in the heart was brought out into light, where things could be seen as they truly were, free from the distortions of obsession and confusion. The relationship between young monk and elder characterized by charity and absolute trust, made possible this vital means of growth” (A.I.M. Monastic Bulletin, p.32). In looking at this text the first thing that jumps out to me is ‘things seen as they truly are’. Such a seemingly simple reality but so difficult because we are blinded…blinded by our defenses, excuses, rationalizations etc. To see things as they truly are, to see them apart from our obsessions and our confusions: this is the work of self-knowledge…this is the work of conversion. Because it is so difficult for all of us ‘to see things as they are’, the early desert tradition emphasized this practice of ‘manifesting one’s thoughts’ to an enlightened elder. The thoughts that swirl around our minds and hearts, to bring them out into the light with a companion at our side does help us to see more clearly what is going on. Also, I think you would agree, if we reflect on our experience, to bring forth what is happening in the heart with another often frees the ‘hold’ that these thoughts can have on us. Columba Stewart says the following about the early desert monks’ commitment to radical honesty: “This honesty touched everything they did, beginning with their own hearts opened to the light of truth, and served as the basis of the relationships they enjoyed with one another and with the societies around them, freeing them to see God” (p.42). Michael Casey will refer us to humility and he says that “if humility is truth” then a significant part of the practice of walking the way of humility is manifesting these hidden thoughts because we are subject to ‘delusion’.
You may wonder: why am I bringing this up now? There have been a number of experiences in the past weeks that have made me aware that if we do not live at this level of openness of the heart, these ‘passions’ as they were referred to in the early monastic tradition, these thoughts (logismoi) begin to get the upper hand on our interior lives and then our whole lives are negatively impacted. The goal is not to have it all together…rather the goal is simply to be on the path, on the path of humility, a way of ‘truth and grace’, a way of growing in purity of heart, in purity of intention.
To make a new beginning each day is to begin each day walking this way of radical honesty before God and one another. I think we would all agree of the importance of ‘radical honesty’ on the monastic path. The difficulty is bringing this self-disclosure to another. Columba Stewart puts this question before us: “Is there something about sharing the secret of one’s heart with another person…which liberates in a way that solitary confession in prayer does not?” (p.42). We must not forget that radical honesty about our selves opens us to grace; it leads us to becoming more Christ-like. And ‘manifesting thoughts’ to another is a way of freeing us from our defensiveness and making sure we are seeing with the heart and mind of Christ.
Sr Kathy DeVico