A reflection for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”
St. John the Baptist speaking of Jesus in John 3:29-30
Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga fishing at a nearby reservoir, reminiscent of John’s mission field: baptizing in the Jordan River
John the Baptist must have been a very humble man. Everyone surely knew the story surrounding his birth – how his father Zechariah became mute when he was serving in the temple because he did not believe the angel who told him about the destiny of his unborn son (cf. Luke 1:5-25), but regained his speech when John was born. Scripture says that, “then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to hear saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:65-66). But did John let this fame get to him? No. Instead, we know that he wore camel’s hair and survived on locusts and wild honey when he grew up! (cf. Mark 1:6). He stayed humble all his life, and pointed to Jesus when He came to the Jordan River to be baptized, telling his followers, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel” (John 1: 29,31). And at the end of his life, when he was imprisoned for telling King Herod that it was wrong to marry his brother’s wife (cf. Mark 6:17-20), John had the humility to ask Christ for confirmation of His identity. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3). He wasn’t afraid to humble himself to find the right path. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he wasn’t certain of the truth, and he had the courage to ask Jesus for help.
Humility is the work of a lifetime, and like John, we do not know the day nor the hour of our death. But if one strives to live humbly, he too will come to that “perfect love of God which casts out fear. And all those precepts which formerly he had not observed without fear, he will now begin to keep by reason of that love, without any effort, as though naturally and by habit. No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin” (Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 7 on Humility).
A reflection by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB, on the Benedictine’s call to practice some of the least popular virtues in our world’s culture
In Chapter 7 of his Rule, Saint Benedict tells us, “We must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending (Gen. 28:12). Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend” (Rule 7:6-9). It says our divine vocation. As some say, the monastic life is the life of the angels. It’s a bit hard on us because we have original sin hanging on us, but really it is like the life of the angels in that we have the ability to be undistracted in our praise of God. A married woman’s first duty is her husband and her family. We have given up things and that particular love, the pleasure of a family– all of those things we have given up because of the divine call. The divine vocation to praise God in a particular way. We have to remember it is a divine call. It’s not something we imagined up together and decided to do. It cannot possibly happen without God’s grace and His call.
I want to share with you this part about what happened after Jacob’s dream: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!’” (Gen. 28:16-17). God’s almighty power and His presence can be fearful, and we should remember who God is. We are not His equal. There should be some true fear of the Lord in our lives. When you really love someone, you fear to hurt them; you fear to do something against them. I think that is part of the fear of the Lord. We should fear to offend Him and to live against Him. We should fear to harm that relationship. This fear is appropriate because we know the consequences. This fear is the foundation of the dear virtue of humility. Humus: we are all made of the same dirt. There is not anybody who is made of something better – unless you’re not a human being. There is nothing that makes us greater, except what St. Benedict says: one can be more loved because of their obedience. This is, because of our nature, a tug of war, due to original sin. We carry within us the desire to be like God—to have all the knowledge, to be equal with Him. Obedience is the recognition and submission to someone being over you—to have someone over you and to have the right to ask of you great (and sometimes difficult) things, and for you to then have the duty to obey. This is our struggle in life, and why obedience is such a great virtue.
Saint Benedict was a wise man and he loved the Lord profoundly. His order continues to this day and it is the order that the mystics say will continue until the end of time. I believe this is because this order teaches man about Eden: the right relationship with God, the work and the prayer, the honor of God and the honor of one another. This is the work that we are showing to the world by our life and example—To teach them again how to communicate with God, how to love God, and how to act appropriately with our beloved Savior. Let’s think of this today: How much are you loving God in your life? May your goal be to love Him with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and your whole body.
We read in Genesis 17:3 that when Abram (before he was renamed Abraham) prostrated himself before the Lord, God spoke to him. When he was in a position of humility, he was able to hear the Lord. Our position before God really matters. How we are before Him determines how we are able to hear Him. And it’s not just to hear all the bad things we’re doing. In the instance of Abraham, God is promising him generations: “I will maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an everlasting pact” (Genesis 17:7). He didn’t even have kids yet, and he wasn’t young either! And yet God tells him that He will make him fruitful. God can do anything with us if we are humble. We need to listen to God to recognize our faults, but also to hear His blessings. God has wonderful things to say; He desires to build us up, not tear us down. He says, “There is so much in you…so much good…and you need to hear it.” It’s so important to be on your knees to hear the good things, because that will enable you to be fully who you are. It only takes a twinkling of the eye for all things to change. Be aware of how good it is to hear the whole of what God has to say.
You really can’t run away from the Spirit of God. If He wants to tell you something, He can use any instrument He wants to get through to you. You can try to ignore them all, but still another will show up. So it’s better to face the truth head on and just try to listen rather than keep running. Sometimes the word God has for us may be painful or ask more than we think we can give, but we have to be willing to trust Him that He will provide everything we need to do what is being asked of us. Listen, listen with the ears of your heart.
“He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant”
A reflection on the King David of the Old Testament by Mother Maria-Michael Newe, OSB
David could be a really controversial character because of some of the things he did in his life. He had a sword…and he wasn’t afraid to use it. God even told him that he couldn’t build His temple because he had too much blood on his hands. And then there’s the whole episode with Bathsheba—committing adultery and then murder to cover up his crime. But there’s one thing about David that keeps drawing the heart of the Lord, and that’s his humility. David is a humble man, and he acknowledges his wrongdoings. When he is corrected, he does not try to defend himself. We never hear of him coming back to God and saying, “Well let me explain myself!”. Never. He always takes total blame, begging God to blame himself, the shepherd, and not his sheep. He is so honest and generous in that way; and God looks upon that and seems to forget everything else.
I also love David because of his prayer. I think it must have taken him even more courage to pray after getting into so much trouble. He keeps going back to God, without any sense that he should do otherwise. We can learn something from that. David, even after the crimes he committed, continues to sing the psalms, to play on his harp, and he continues to love. He accepts who he is; he doesn’t try to weasel out of what he’s done. Perhaps by accepting his shortcomings, he calls upon God to love him more, because he acknowledges that he needs Him more. We should do the same.
You can think about that this Lent. It is a good practice to simply say nothing when corrected for a fault, but humbly acknowledge it and turn to the Lord for His mercy. I think St. Benedict strove for that too, that pure heart, to be of the house of David.