On Accepting Correction with a Cheerful Heart

“Brevity and conciseness are the parents of correction.” (Hosea Ballou)

Accepting correction at the best of times can prove difficult but with a cheerful heart? Whether in the quest of spiritual enlightenment or not, for often we find it harder to be ‘put right’ when we imagine the Creator on our side, it would seem too much to ask. To be corrected might be humbling enough, but to be thankful and with a gracious disposition, is that demanding too much? At the same time a good education can make little difference to our willingness to be corrected. In fact, the more qualified we are, the less likely we will take kindly to correction. Intransigence and an inflated opinion of oneself are huge blocks which stand in the way of admitting error. Our ego is normally at odds with the practice of humility. One of the reasons we do not like to be corrected, wrote the American transcendentalist R. W. Emerson, is the sense we are being “persecuted whenever we are contradicted.” Is this not also true of ourselves? We habitually connect correction with reproof (or being judged from which we instinctively recoil).

It is impossible to improve our lives, to learn new things and to succeed in reaching our goals, without accepting at least some form of correction. Sometimes this instruction to set us right might be constant and subtle until we ourselves learn the lesson and are able to teach it to others (learning a craft or acquiring a new set of skills for example). On other occasions it might need to be immediate and direct lest we cause ourselves or others preventable harm (substance abuse or the habit of lying for instance). More commonly it will be something as simple as the pointing out of an obvious fallacy or an inconsistency in our argument. The etymology of the word “correction” is revealing. It can be traced to the Latin corrigere which is “to make straight, bring into order”. Think also on the stonemason and carpenter who use the spirit level to indicate with precision the horizontal or vertical of a surface.

All this has more to do with acceptance and much less with self-blame. Without quarrel or egomania. Saint Paul in one of his pastoral epistles speaks of correction “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:23). And how might we achieve this gentle art of correction? It can be achieved by sharing in the sufferings of the other. Abraham Lincoln’s favourite Old Testament book Proverbs equates the acceptance of correction as the pathway to life and with the gaining of wisdom, “Listen to advice and accept correction, and in the end you will be wise” (Prov 19:20). Not surprisingly, it is the humble in spirit who are more often the wisest among us. They are the ones who are ‘vulnerable’ to a ‘change of heart’ for correction is hollow when it is removed from transformation. Similarly to pain which in itself cannot build character unless it is fully faced.

Correction and pain will very often follow one after the other. The truth can sometimes hurt.

There is a treasured story in the ascetic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church of a simple old monk doing obedience when he was corrected by his much younger bishop on the approved rendering of the Pater Noster. The old monk on gladly accepting this correction quickly forgot one of the rubrics and ran after his superior to be corrected once more. By this time the young bishop and his party had returned to the boat which had brought them to this distant monastic community. The venerable recluse without giving it a second thought, and intent on doing his obedience and looking to be corrected [that is to be “brought into order”], thought it nothing to chase after the small vessel by running on the water! Now, certainly, this marvellous little story need not be taken literally but the lesson is wondrous and full of implications. To accept correction is to open ourselves up to infinite possibilities and to realize our potential. This has nothing to do with deflating and antagonistic criticism, but everything to do with life affirming growth. In teaching others, to paraphrase the Serbian poet and essayist Dejan Stojanović, we also correct ourselves. There is no instance where correction from a trusted person (such as parent, teacher, or mentor) has not been to our betterment.

Even if we should disagree with what we hear or if the direction might be a little askew for no human being is infallible, to at least contemplate the possibility that we might have fallen into error and allowed for pride to make us hard of hearing. Sometimes we will discern the importance of this intercession years later or during a moment of luminous clarity. Hindsight, too, will often reveal to us where we might have fallen short of the mark and lost valuable time going about in circles. We should respond to ‘blame’ the same way as we might respond to ‘praise’ the Buddhist tradition has taught, with “mindfulness and equanimity”. In one place of the Brahmajala Sutta after a disagreement between two monks on an aspect of Siddhartha’s personality, the Buddha himself indifferent to the content of the conversation was concerned only with how his disciples would accept either praise or blame. It was the attitude which mattered with all else being nothing more than “hindrance”.

For the community of believers within the Christian tradition correction with its correlation to “gnosiology” [theory of knowledge] brings us closer to the authentic expression of the Holy Spirit who lives and acts within us. What is more to a nearer proximity of what it really means to be Christ-like.

“Dear Lord, help me to accept correction and to seek the counsel from those you have set on my path with a cheerful heart and not with a recalcitrant spirit. Allow me to see all the clearer even as my natural sight grows dimmer, the marvellous gifts of growth and the realization of potential that come with being corrected from those who truly love me.”

On Loving Oneself

Andrei rublev  trinity  (C.1411)

Andrei rublev trinity (C.1411)

“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you love now.” (Alan Cohen)

One of the most difficult things for both religious and non-religious alike is to love oneself. That is, to accept ourselves as we are in the moment and not as we might want ourselves to be tomorrow. It can be more difficult than the giving or the asking of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? “The most terrifying thing,” writes C. J. Jung the well-known founder of analytical psychology, “is to accept oneself completely.” Of course, we are not speaking of egotistical or hedonistic self-worship which has become one of the staples of modern culture given the rise and ubiquity of social media. Loving ourselves for who we are is for the most part insufferably hard because no one knows us as we know ourselves. No one has access to those dark places of the soul which we ourselves possess and would recoil from, if we were to encounter them in another. “But I do nothing upon myself”, reflects the 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne, “and yet am mine own executioner.”

In our hearts we have committed abominable crimes, too despicable and shameful to mention. We know all too well who we really are deep down. We punish ourselves, sometimes mercilessly, for our past misdemeanours and mistakes. We needlessly poison our spirits. We relive the pain we have caused others or which has been delivered to us. And so it must, and it will hurt. But here, in the very place of that agonizing conflict rests our way out from this condition of ‘self-unforgiving’. Only after this toughest of confrontations with one of the most sensitive components of our consciousness, can we come to a true comprehension of what it means to love oneself. Vironika Tugaleva, who fought many life-threatening battles to do with her self-esteem, writes knowingly from her own experience, “You will not love anyone or anything until those eyes in the mirror soften up and embrace the beauty that is already within.”

It is very important to arrive at a place where we are at peace with the present, the eternal-present, to come to an understanding that any absolute resolution can only ever come with our death. For the present let us consider ourselves works in progress imbued with an infinite grace and the potential to accomplish wonderful things. There is no denying the effect and burden of guilt, for real or even perceived failings, volumes have been written on this subject. The underlying consensus of the literature is unless we deal with this pressing weight of self-condemnation (again an entirely different matter to self-correction and interior vigilance), unless we find our own way out, unless we initiate a process where we can begin to be gentle and kind to ourselves, we will only perpetuate the anger or self-hatred. There will be no peace for the heart remains agitated. And so we look for the other, destructive ways out, we abuse ourselves through various forms of addictions and cause damage to both the mind and the body. We set about decomposing and deconstructing “the temple”.

For each one of us the path to self-love will be different, we will be touched and inspired by separate revelations and distinct moments of higher intuition. But there are to be found in each of our stories some very similar signposts. To offer a peace offering where we have offended and to repair a wrong where possible; to make a personal sacrifice in whatever way that might be demanded of us; to not permit for others to diminish or to wound our self-esteem; to surround ourselves with people who practice the art of love; to respect ourselves; to love as we ourselves might wish to be loved; and especially to forgive those who have hurt us. We should try, also, to remember we are fragile and wounded creatures ourselves and that we are dealing with other similarly imperfect creatures. “The other” is living out the conditions of his or her soul’s present state of enlightenment and they too are on the journey to self-knowledge.

So why is it important to love and to be kind to ourselves? Because it is only in loving ourselves can we unleash the great torrent of love and grace which rests dormant with in us, for it is precisely here that one of the greatest spiritual maxims has been spoken, and this by the GodMan Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Unless we love ourselves, that is, to see the potential grandeur and awesomeness within us which flows from the creative energies of the Creator, we cannot love our neighbour. That is why there is so much hate in the world, and why killing and wars will not end. We have stopped loving ourselves and so we have stopped seeing God in the presence of the other.

Prayer, however we might choose to initially practise it, brings us back into the interior of our being and to the recognition that we are not a random existence. Our presence upon this earth was an act and a movement of infinite Love. We had been loved and known, Jeremiah the OT Prophet gives us to understand, even before we were “formed” in our mother’s wombs (Jer. 1:5). Loving myself means I acknowledge my absolute uniqueness. I establish my self-worth in the originating act and movement of Love proceeding and emanating from the Creator. The acknowledgement of the existence and continuing activity of this originating source of Love which has brought us into being is where the principal foundation of our value and uniqueness is to be found. It is not in our achievements or temporal successes, not in our fame or gilded reputations, not in our possessions or accumulation of wealth, not in our physical attractiveness or in our great intellects.

One of the fundamental teachings of Trinitarian theology, which has also been stunningly presented to us in the Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, is the reciprocity of love which emanates and flows eternally between each of the three divine persons. There is a “stumbling block” for those who would criticize the Scriptures as pointing to a God who makes too many demands to be loved and to be worshiped. If the Creator did not have this divine sense of self-worth His love for us would be impossibly diminished. It is this self-worth which led to Gethsemane. It is where He empties Himself of His divine splendour to save the world. Here is the highest example of theophany and humanity. The great fruits of this self-love into which we are called, are humility and self-knowledge. “Yet not I”, says Saint Paul, “but the grace of God which was in me” (1Cor. 15:10). There is no place here for self-aggrandizement nor for vainglory. This is not the “self-love” of the beautiful hunter Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He could not detach himself from his image and eventually drowned. These are things we should always guard against and cannot ever be immune from. 

Significantly, in patristic literature when the narcissistic elements of ‘self-love’ are warned against, it is invariably in the context of kenodoxia, which is, vainglory and empty pride.

“Dear Lord, teach me the proper and safest way to love myself that I might draw nearer to You, to discern Your imprint on my hand, to experience You in my neighbour.” 

You are gods (Ps 82:6)

St. Michael’s Church,
Hildesheim Germany  Adam and Eve  (1192 AD)

St. Michael’s Church, Hildesheim Germany Adam and Eve (1192 AD)

If we remain faithful to their ancient interpretation, these words have nothing to do with becoming super-beings or small divinities. The original meaning has been misconstrued, particularly today where the cult has become the self and modern technology is promoting the culture of ‘self-deification’. We shamelessly glorify ourselves, overestimate our capacities, and take pride in the making of idols. We have warped and twisted the inspiration behind this astounding indication of our potential as sons and daughters of God: you are gods (Ps 82:6). The lessons of the creation account are connected to the ethical dimensions of life, but the implications apply also to other attributes of the Creator. Being made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), that is, having god-likeness, has no end of possibilities. The previously unapproachable “I AM” reveals Himself to Moses (Ex 3:14). He invites worship and glorification and seeks to be made known universally. These outward qualities fundamentally to do with the invitation to commune with Him, are also breathed into us. However, these external attributes in Adam and Eve are suffered in a finite existence which makes them inherently unnatural and so they are corrupted and misused. ‘Worship’ and ‘glorification’ for the created order signify the natural yearning to be loved and yes, to be sometimes acknowledged for a job well done. It does not mean to hunger and to lust over fame and adulation. It does not mean to seek dictatorship or lordship over people. The creation account also tells of an infamous figure, “the serpent” (Gen 3). This was precisely its downfall, it sought to usurp the authority and glory which alone belong to God, but the serpent also sought to convince those who would listen that they were gods in essence themselves. The desire for unrestrained power is at the core of this story. When our fleshly body, infirm and perishing from the moment it enters the world looks to seize at these divine properties, the outcome will invariably result in catastrophic loss. We are to put it simply, not built to live with the ‘shock’ or ‘attraction’ of being called a ‘god’. Physically at least, we witness this phenomenon today when a person wants to remain forever young, and burns his or her face into an almost unrecognizable and featureless visage. Extreme pride, which is connected to hubris and arrogance, can disfigure both the flesh and spirit. It is a denseness of our sensibilities. I will continue to exist not because I will transmogrify into a soulless machine nor because I might be well regarded by the world, but because I have created and left behind good and enduring works which like healthy seeds are not ended when pushed into the earth. You are gods might be transliterated: You have come forth from Me, the great “I Am”, and so you possess all that you need to become the best you can. This is the one necessary step towards the ultimate goal of divinization- to become the best we can- which is to experience something of the Creator’s divine energies, and the one true aim for those who wish to imitate the Christ.

 

Humility

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Ford Madox Brown's  Jesus Washing Peter's Feet  (1876) 

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Few have been able to write deeply on humility, and of these authors only a handful are widely known. The real witnesses to this special grace have invariably been those who have lived by its fruits. So important and fundamental a virtue it is, that all of the great religions understand it as a necessary condition for the acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. A virtue is something more than a good quality. It is a call to transformation. Many of us are ruled not so much by God or ‘disbelief’ but our pride. And yet, once we understand this actuality in our lives and are able to define it, we can use it to help us grow in the spirit. If we should look honestly into our heart we will find even before we open our mouths to speak, the initial action to be inspired by pride, either in the asserting or refuting of a statement. These are not negative responses in themselves, not always, but typically they will be made with the intent to establish our own credibility or to diminish that of another.

Humility, it is said by those who have studied this royal path, would prefer to silence or to surrender the ego, to throw the light onto the other who is standing opposite. Sometimes it might mean to accept calumny for a season or to suffer an injustice and to respond with charity rather than vengeance. More often than not we will have saved our soul from distress and allowed for the truth to reveal itself in other more meaningful ways. Humility is not a sign of weakness, or giving up on the fight, or hiding one’s talents under the bushel. It is a quiet but powerful statement of a person living through an unshakeable peace, someone that has knowledge of their potential. It also means to be acutely aware of one’s own defects and failings, to be constantly mindful of the log in the eye. The etymology of this beautiful word ordinarily connected to the Latin humilitas for “grounded” or “from the earth” can also be traced to the Old French umelite which can also mean “sweetness”.

So why have I published this piece? Am I not skirting with a terrible danger? Particularly since humility has never been one of my strengths. But I want to get a clearer picture of my mortal enemy- the exalting of the self... so that I could become more familiar with its approach. To discern it when like that clade of lizards which change colour, it might not in every single instance get around me. In the Christian scriptures there is no greater revelation as to the awesomeness and potential of the practice of humility than the lesson of the ‘kenosis’ when Christ emptied himself of his divine glory: “[b]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). And so there is a bodily labour to humility as well, it is not just talk. Love and humility are co-existent, uniquely powerful as forces of change, and at their most genuine, indistinguishable one from the other.