The Prerequisite for Love
“What does it take to love?
First and foremost, argues Roberta C. Bondi in her book, “To Love as God Loves”, it requires humility. But this is perhaps one of the most misunderstood virtues, and so she provides some thoughts on the subject for us from the teachings of the fourth century saints who took to the desert to seek from God hearts of genuine love.
The cultures of the world are, by and large, loveless. This was the case when men and women fled to the wilderness to try and break the hold of various love-destroying externals on their lives. They recognized that lack of love is more than an external problem. But as Bondi writes, “Those who chose the monastic life, however, believed that for themselves only radical renunciation of the external as well as the internal patterns of their culture could put them in a position where they would be able to begin to love.”
We might criticize their choices and view the lives they chose as needlessly separate from the daily challenges to love that a majority of believers must face in their ordinary callings. Yet their extraordinary quests yielded insights into the human heart and relationships that have stood the test of time. In the laboratory of the desert they made discoveries we are still benefiting from today.
When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.” (from “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, Ward)
Anyone disciplined enough can practice renunciation and participate in rigorous devotional exercises. According to this saying, even the evil one can imitate such asceticism. What the devil cannot achieve is humility, the attitude of heart that frees us up to show genuine love to others.
At its root, humility is the mindset of acknowledging my humanity, my common standing with all other people as a limited, weak, imperfect, and sinful person. Under God. I need God’s grace just as do all my brothers and sisters. I need others as well. “We are all vulnerable, all limited, and we each have a different struggle only God is in a position to judge,” Bondi affirms. I am no better than anyone else, nor do I take on a false humility, imagining that I am lower than others. I also have gifts which God has bestowed upon me that I may share with others. My neighbor also has much to offer me.
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:3, NRSV)
We are all in this together. We can look at each other, eye to eye, and know that we are free to both give and receive in a relationship of mutual benefit.
However, warped ideas of humility abound. Bondi notes that these false understandings have been especially hurtful to women, minorities, and others deemed to be on the lower rungs of society. People in these positions may hear a call to humility as a further call to submit to oppression and another blow to whatever self-esteem they’ve fought to maintain. The exhortations they have heard to humbly submit, serve, and obey have often meant “accept an inferior position,” “give up your self and all your personal desires to serve others,” or “accept injustice and cruelty as your lot in life and don’t try to change things.” Genuine love that grows out of humility is not “selfless” in this way; in fact, it requires someone with a strong sense of self and appreciation for God’s grace and gifting. As Bondi says: “One reason the monastics left ordinary life in their own culture was that they were trying to establish a new model where everyone was on the same footing, where loving service was the model for everybody.”
We must also beware of other kinds of false humility. Sometimes we feign a humble demeanor in order to manipulate others. Bondi calls this the “you take the good chair” approach. Or, we may think that being humble involves going around feeling guilty all the time. That’s not humility, that’s self-punishment. Instead of acknowledging our guilt, repenting, and moving on, we cling to a self-absorbed penance that paralyzes us and keeps us from being sensitive to the needs of others. On the other hand — and this was a particular temptation for novice monks and nuns — we sometimes feel responsible to be heroes and to take on heroic tasks. In fact, this may paralyze us just as much a feeling guilty. Daydreaming about all the great things we can do to save the world easily becomes a mind game that keeps us from washing our neighbor’s feet.
Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They needed to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed. They had to learn to accept it as true that all tasks contribute to the final goal, and the small ones are often of infinite significance.
Christians who are especially scrupulous may also avoid the humility that leads to genuine love by focusing so much on their own holiness that they confuse ends with means. The goal is always love. If my pursuit of “discipleship,” “Christian growth,” or personal purity does not contribute to that end, in Paul’s words, it is nothing. This gets especially dangerous when, in my quest to be “above reproach,” I start thinking more and more about my reputation, what other people think of me. It can be a subtle transition but soon my need to look good takes priority over truly giving myself to serve others.
It is a short step from there to the attitude that is most devastating to humility: the spirit of judging others. Bondi cites a saying of Dorotheos:
“That Pharisee who was praying and giving thanks to God for [his own] good works was not lying but speaking the truth, and he was not condemned for that. For we must give thanks to God when we are worthy to do something good, as he is then working with us and helping us. Because of this he was not condemned, as I said, not even because he said, “I am not like other men,” but … because he said, “I am not like this tax-collector.” It was then that he made a judgment. He condemned a person and the disposition of his soul-to put it shortly, his whole life. Therefore the tax-collector, rather than the Pharisee went away justified.”
Roberta Bondi encourages us to remember that, “To be humble is to identify with the sinner, and rather than take secret pleasure in another person’s downfall, when you hear of it, say, ‘Oh Lord, him today, me tomorrow!’ recognizing your kinship with the sinner.”
On the positive, what can we say humility is and what does it act like? Here are some statements (and paraphrases) from “To Love as God Loves”:
• “It calls for the renunciation of all deep attachments to what the world holds dear: goods, social advancement, the satisfaction of appetites at the expense of others, the right to dominate others in any personal relationship.”
• “Humility has to do with taking and accepting radical responsibility for the things that happen in life.”
• Humility involves “letting go of the need to look good in the eyes of ourselves or of others.”
• Humility involves a radical realism. It is realistic about the world, about the ineffective nature of force to truly change the world, about my own limitations and weaknesses and the common humanity I share with others, and about the kind of unflagging commitment it takes to practice love in a world like ours…
A much later saint with the spirit of the Desert Fathers said it well: “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”).
Roberta C. Bondi “To Love as God Loves” [Fortress Press, 1987]
“Being a Christian means learning to love with God’s love. But God’s love is not a warm feeling in the pit of the stomach. It has definite characteristics we learn in the course of our life, in the behavior and teaching of the early monastics, as we ponder over what we can say about God as God deals with us, and finally, as we model our own lives on what we have learned.”
Roberta C. Bondi “To Pray and to Love” [Fortress Press, 1991
“Bondi offers a beautifully simple and profound account of prayer as the desert fathers saw it: integrally connected to love of God and neighbor, but also leading to introspection which facilitates spiritual growth. She begins with the teaching of the desert fathers about St. Paul’s injunction “pray without ceasing,” and discusses monastic prayer and life. Next she discusses how prayer can help develop the image of God within the individual. Bondi then addresses current concerns about prayer, how to approach it, the need for self-development, and the need for deeper human relationship through prayer. She concludes by discussing the desire for God as fostered and fulfilled through prayer by God’s grace.”
Dr. Roberta C. Bondi is Professor Emeritus of Church History in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.