Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Give Me a Word: Wisdom from Desert Monks

The de Chantal Society, "a group of women passionate about praying for vocations and for families in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, gathers three times per year at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for eucharistic adoration and spiritual formation." Last spring, during Lent, Fr. Tom DeVries addressed the de Chantal Society with an inspiring talk on humility, sin and hope based upon wisdom learned from the desert monks.  Fr. Tom is a great speaker,  and at first I was so focused on listening to him that I didn't think to take notes on what he was saying, so the first section on humility is a little scant as I didn't completely catch all of what he said. Most interesting to me is the Mystery of Sin.  As one who usually beats herself up over sins and mistakes, I had never before considered the fact that our sins could be the beginning of our salvation.  Although these notes are from a Lenten talk and are not complete, the knowledge they contain can be useful to us at any time of year.

Give Me a Word:  Wisdom from Desert Monks
A Talk by Fr. Tom DeVries

The Necessity of Humility

Without God I am nothing, can do nothing.  Humility is being plunged into God.  Without temptations no person can be saved.  With temptations we realize how weak we are and we know without grace we cannot be saved.  We must lose at something, be brought to the edge of all of our resources and realize we can’t control, fix, explain or even understand some of the things that happen to us.  Do not be afraid of failure.  It’s required for us if God will exalt us.  We don’t exalt ourselves; God does.

Realize we are not self-sufficient.  Only God’s grace gets us through.  Then we come to the important place where we say “God, I surrender to your grace.”  I can agree in my head, but it’s hard in my life to get to those places.  God will keep drawing me to the end of my resources.

The Mystery of Sin

The Ambrosian Rite of the Church which was begun by St. Ambrose and is still celebrated today around Milan, Italy, has a prayer for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time that helps us to understand the mystery of sin:  “Lord, you bent down over our wounds and healed us giving us a medicine.  In this way, even sin, by virtue of Your invincible love, served to elevate us to divine life.”  This is echoed in Romans-Paul says where sin increases grace abounds all the more.  There is a mystery to sin, a paradox.   It separates us from God but it’s precisely the route He uses to have us come back to Him.  If we’re honest it’s really our sin that keeps us coming back to God.  We may think we have failed or we are so wounded but it doesn’t stop God’s mercy.  God will use everything to bring us back to Him.

Everything I had deplored about my life was precisely how God kept pulling me back.  I realized what a grace it was that I even became grateful for my sin. 

It sounds heretical but we sing about it at Easter when we call the sin of Adam a Happy Fault.  Even when I was turning away from You, You were more powerful and were drawing me back to You.
We base salvation upon woundedness to level the playing field where everyone has access to God.
Julian of Norwich said:  “Our wounds are our very trophies.  They are the holes in the soul where light breaks through.”  Leonard Cohen, in the song Anthem says, “Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That is how the light gets in.”

The Mystery of Sin follows on the heels of our understanding of humility but it takes it one more step.  God uses sin to draw close to us.  Julian of Norwich tells us that both the first fall and the recovery from the fall are the mercy of God.  In falling down we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.  All of the things that are achievements feed our ego too much.  There are things we keep so secret because they are just horrible, but if we own that one day we will even see our sin as our trophy.  It is falling upwards.

We often have a hate relationship with the faults, wounds and failures of our lives but take heart; God will use it and we’ll be able to thank God for the circuitous route and for all of our sins because God never left you and He used your failure as the route to Him.  People who don’t get close to God never admit their sin and their failure.

Make a chart of your own life-the ups, downs, failures, wounds, great times and bad times.  Realize in the woundedness and failure that you learn most about your spiritual life.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.

The Challenge of Hope

Julian of Norwich says “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” St. Paul tells us that “Hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”  St. Matthew says, “Behold!  I am with you always even until the end of the age.”

Christian hope is ultimate hope when we know what our destiny is meant to be and that’s why we can go through humility and sin because God is using it all to lead us beyond this world.
Transitory vanities won’t furnish us with our deepest longings.  We are eternal and hope is ultimate and it’s God.  St. Benedict tells us that the present, even if it’s arduous, can be accepted if it leads the way to a goal and the goal is God himself.

There is a difference between wishes and hope.  Wishes are temporal and hope is eternal.  Optimism is the expectation that things will get better but hope is a trust that will lead us to true freedom.  Hope is based upon God’s promise.

We shouldn’t lose the virtue of hope in our world today.  We look at the near future and we can get pretty depressed, but we should not ever, ever, ever be people who have a message of despair.

Hope is for the long road and we need to believe in God’s promise.  Presumption and despair are sins against hope.  We don’t want to wait; we don’t want to live through difficult times.  But as Julian of Norwich reminds us “The Lord did not say you shall not be tempest tossed but he did say you shall not be overcome.”


  1. This is wonderful Anne! How blessed you are to have been present for this talk on humility. You have inflamed my "hope" in all things and shed some brilliant insight on sin and woundedness. Thanks so much for your recounting of these truths!! God bless...

    1. Cynthia, you're welcome! The wisdom is really from Fr. Tom, I'm just the messenger, but a grateful messenger that you found this post to be hopeful! God bless you as well!

  2. I love this post, Anne. As someone who also has the tendency to "beat herself up" over sins and mistakes it really hit home with me. I know humility is key when it comes to sin but I get discouraged at times and come down hard on myself even though I know this is actually a manifestation of pride.

    1. Mary, that ever-lurking pride! It seems to be the source of all of our troubles, doesn't it? I found the mystery of sin to be very helpful, too, in learning to stop myself from beating myself up over everything I do wrong. It's a tough lesson, though. Very hard to get out of that habit. Thanks for all of the great ways you inspire!