Many of you already know that the best remedy to self-centeredness in the spiritual life is to do the corporal works of mercy {to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to harbor the harborless; to visit the sick; to ransom the captive; to bury the dead.} However, since many of you already know that, I want to discuss some other remedies in this post.

When I was a charismatic before becoming a traditionalist, I was discerning a good group of Franciscans in the Bronx.  (I still consider them quite faithful and evangelical, so this isn’t a now I’ve moved on blogpost.)   One of the friars used to admit (in a half-joking, half-serious manner) how he would get mad if another friar borrowed his Liturgy of the Hours.  Why would one friar get mad at another friar for accidentally commandeering his Breviary?  Because it’s all he had, he said.   In some sense, it was a little bit of a humble-brag (eg “I’m so poor that this Breviary is the only imperfection against poverty that I could possibly tell you about.”)  But in another sense, it was a vulnerable admission of weakness (eg “How could I give up a wife and family and career and then go start a little argument about something as small as a book?”)

Today, I know many good Catholics in the USA who have lost jobs (due to not taking the vaccine) and lost friends (due to the belief Jesus is the only way to the Father) and also lost family (due to their defense of Catholic-marriage.)  The final item they have left to be prideful about is their spiritual lives.  I am tempted by this, too, after having lost so much for my convictions.  The final item we Apostolic Catholics have left to be prideful about is our spiritual lives, our prayer lives, our interior lives.

This is not a blog post about how traditionalists are prideful.  I have said before that I don’t believe this to be the case—at least not more than any other Catholics.   In any case, whether we are talking about neo-con non-trads or talking about full rad-trads, we know that demons prey off of our intense pursuit of real prayer lives, bringing us to the edge of pride in the interior life.

Once, a nun came to St. Teresa of Avila explaining that she was prideful about all her fasting and mortification and she asked the saint if it weren’t better for her to stop all her extra penance, especially since it was leading to pride.  (Of course, most mother-superiors today would immediately answer: “Oh yes, I know pride is worse than gluttony so you must stop the extra-penance!)  But St. Teresa of Avila was smarter than taking a novice bait.  The extremely-wise St. Teresa of Avila told her to keep up the extra penance, but to work on interior humility simultaneously.

I love this story because it shows that we can be magnanimous with God and generous to others and excellent in our vocations even before we have perfect purity of intention.  If we waited to act for our intention to be as pure as, say, St. Joseph had his whole life,  nothing would get done.  The obvious answer then is to work towards excellence in all our pursuits, all the while asking St. Joseph that he obtain from God for us a purity of intention closer to what he had in everything he did, in both prayer and in work.  Excellence in work and humility are not mutually-exclusive.  Of course, St. Joseph lived both perfectly.

This year, 2023, the thing I have been reading the most is the Desert Fathers.  There are long tomes like the Philokalia, but the best beginners-version to desert wisdom is The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. Even though it is translated by an Episcopalian woman named Benedicta Ward, it comes from an authentic text from the early orthodox Catholic Church in Egypt.  Most stories are thermobaric bombs of humility in accounts that are less than one page long.  (Thus, this can be read much faster than something like the Summa by St. Thomas Aquinas.) Most pieces from advice from those Desert Fathers and Mothers have one or two ironic twists to shock the reader into seeing what is true humility.  It’s usually deeper than what most pious people think.  We’ll see some examples at the end of this post.

The Desert Fathers have the same spirit of self-deprecatory humor found in the very first Franciscans and the Holy Fool saints of the East.  (I recently made a video on the Holy Fools with an Eastern Catholic hermit who I found wandering across Europe earlier this year.)  In Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis De Sales (a third order Franciscan himself) points out that we all like to say things like, “Oh poor me, I’m the greatest sinner around.” But as soon as someone else says “Yeah, he really is the greatest sinner around,” it tends to shatter our spiritual egos, even if we just asserted the same thing!  The Doctor of the Church shows us that it’s not when I say I am a great sinner that I prove our humility, but rather when I hear others say it and accept it as true.

In other words, there’s a big difference between going around moaning, “I’m the lowest creature” and actually believing it when someone else says it of us!

Another remedy to end self-centeredness in the spiritual life is to be humble enough to apologize when you’re wrong.  You should apologize when you are wrong for things small and great.  Many spiritual people (who believe they have lost everything in the material-world) hold onto their spiritual-world by refraining from apologizing, probably because they think it is a sign of weakness in the spiritual life.  Quite the contrary.  It’s those who never apologize who are very weak in the spiritual life. I explain that during this video with Dr. Taylor Marshall on narcissism.  We also should forgive quickly those who apologize.  (I also explain in that video that some people are too dangerous to let back into our lives even after we have truly forgiven them.)

Let’s talk about levity in the spiritual life:  Most traditionalists (including me) are sick of modernists making jokes about the spiritual life.  This is because too many Catholics treat their faith as a silly hobby instead of a matter of heaven and hell.  And this is a huge problem.  However, the above-linked book Desert Fathers has many stories of one monk tricking another monk to humble him.  Other stories reveal how self-deprecatory the monks of the desert were, especially when they reached very high levels of union with God.

The key difference between old-school desert humor and modernistic humor on the spiritual life is found in this admonition:  Take God and sin seriously, but stop taking yourself so seriously.  Stop caring what people think about your spiritual life. The best desert-monks wanted people to think they were losers, not saints (provided they scandalize no one, of course.) They were good at self-deprecating in humor.  Of course, you should love yourself for the sake of love of God.  Thus, I’m not saying that self-deprecating humor should ever be dark or sarcastic or excessive in over-sharing your life.   Perhaps a clear guidepost on this front is the old phrase: Humility is not thinking less of yourself as much as thinking less-often about yourself.

Here’s some random examples of surprising humility from the Desert Fathers book:

-A brother asked Poemen, ‘How ought I to behave in my cell in the place where I live?’ He answered, ‘Be as prudent as a stranger; and wherever you are, do not expect your words to be taken seriously when you speak, and you will find peace.’

-The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.

-They said of Poemen that he never wanted to cap the saying of others, but always praised what had been said.

-A demoniac, frothing terribly at the mouth, struck an old hermit on the jaw, and he turned the other cheek. This humility tortured the demon like flames, and drove him out there and then.

-A hermit said, ‘If anyone says “Forgive me”, and humbles himself, he burns up the demons that tempt him.’

-“When some monks planned to discipline a brother who was guilty of sin, they were reminded of this basic rule of non-judgement by the acted parable of one of the most loved and respected of the hermits: They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, ‘Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket which he filled with sand and carried it on his back. They went to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’