A book on self-esteem by a Benedictine monk reminds us how faith makes us joyful
Is it possible to be a practising Catholic and have a sense of humour? The question is absurd; as GK Chesterton might have riposted, although in more punchy paradoxical style: it is because Catholics know the divine purpose of their lives and the means to attain it that they can then set about living it with joy and gusto. By this argument, they will actually have a much keener sense of fun than your average atheist or agnostic. Saint Teresa of Avila is said to have commented, “God protect me from sad-faced saints” and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, one of her spiritual daughters who had been a solemn and serious atheist philosopher before her conversion, admitted that she had never laughed so much as when she had become a Carmelite nun.
These musings have arisen as I have just read Humility Rules: Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem by J Augustine Wetta OSB (Ignatius Press.) Don’t be put off by the title which might not sound jolly (I have noted that most books on the subject of improving our “self-esteem” seem very earnest). The author, a monk at St Louis Benedictine Abbey in the US, has written a very amusing as well as wise book. It is also only 173 pages; always a recommendation in my view.
At this point, I must mention the illustrations in the book which are one of its funniest features. Wetta has taken medieval and Renaissance paintings of monks and digitally reconfigured them so that at second glance you realise the joke he is playing: there are monks as disc jockeys, monks as weight-lifters, monks as darts throwers, monks taking selfies and so on. In case you might think this is a very puerile kind of humour, I assure you it isn’t – but you would have to buy the book to know it.
As anyone who has read it knows, St Benedict’s original Rule is a miracle of brevity and psychological insight. Its core message is that genuine self-esteem means self-abandonment; instead of fixating on yourself, you simply focus on God and only regard yourself in the light of his gaze. Wetta explains that there are twelve rungs on the ladder of humility: fear of God, self-denial, obedience, perseverance, repentance, serenity, self-abasement, prudence, silence, dignity, discretion and reverence. When you think about it you see how they all hang together.
Wetta, as befits a monk at ease in his vocation, provides the persevering reader with “homework” at the end of each chapter. These include the light-hearted, “Spare the life of a bug. Bonus points if it’s a mosquito” to the more difficult, “Spend an entire day without correcting anyone.” I felt smug at the direction, “Spend an entire day without looking at the screen” as I practise this every Sunday.
On “Silence” he advises, “When you meet a wise person, listen to him and you will learn wisdom; when you meet a foolish person, listen to him and you will learn patience; when you are alone, listen to God and you will learn everything else.” Yet he doesn’t always suffer fools gladly; when a woman once asked him, “Why did you have to become a monk? Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?” he tells her, “No! God wants you and me to be saints – to give and give and give until it hurts!”
Wetta is an all-rounder. In his spare time he supervises the school juggling team, cultivates carnivorous plants, raises carpenter ants and surfs. His final “homework” is, “Give this book away” – so having read and laughed over it I shall do just that.