martha, mary & lazarus: sacred humanitas

Jesus+with+Mary+and+Martha-1024x768-19525I think it’s simply a marvelous thing that the anniversary of New Camaldoli’s official establishment as a community falls on the feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus––July 29th. Mind you, in the rest of the church this is just the memorial of Martha of Bethany, but the Benedictine order makes it a feast of all three. (Why––we’ll examine below.) I love to point out that our Camaldolese calendar from Italy lists these three saints as “ospiti del Signore.” In common language the Italian word ospite is usually translated as “guest,” but its first meaning is actually “host.” How can someone be a guest and a host at the same time? Maybe that’s what happens in the closest of relationships––the line disappears.

We read the story of Martha and Mary from the Gospel of Luke at Mass (‘Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken away…’), but I had preached on that at the oblate retreat two weeks ago (besides that fact you just can’t win with that gospel in a religious community––somebody’s going to be offended, and its usually the Marthas), so I went in a different direction.

We had a marvelous talk by Sr. Donald from that same oblate retreat, which was actually a distillation of three talks that she had given for the Abbots’ and Priors’ meeting this year, on what she called “Sacred Humanitas.” I will not be able to do her justice in depth or breadth, but I want to share with you a little of what I gleaned from her talks and why I think it applies to this feast, particularly for monks. Sr. Donald told us how Pope John Paul II had urged Benedictines to develop a new Sacred Humanitas. The question is why did he say “sacred humanitas” and not “Christian humanism”? Sr. Donald speculated that it was “sacred” because he wanted it to be broader than Christian, across traditions east and west. And he said “humanitas” instead of humanities or humanism so as not to be confused with either academic Humanities or secular humanism. (Though John Paul II himself will be remembered as one of the great Christian humanists of the 20th century.)

And why was this challenge issued to Benedictines? Well, as Michael Casey says, there is a genial spirit of humanitas that pervades the Rule of Benedict, and therefore Benedictine monasticism at its best. On the one hand there is the classical intellectual side of it, as evidenced by the iconographic book of Jean le Clerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. But humanitas means more than the tendency to classical learning, language, literature and architecture that it came to mean during the Renaissance. The concept goes back to Cicero the great Roman orator and author who is credited with coining the phrase studia humanitatis. For Cicero it originally meant the whole instinct of what it means to be human. Often it comes to be associated with something like hospitality––hence its tie in with today’s feast of the ospiti del Signore––but hospitality in the absolute broadest sense of the word. As a matter of fact in the Rule of Benedict humanitas is what is offered the guest. In Chapter 53 Benedict instructs that “The divine law is read to the guests for instruction, and after that every humanitas is shown to them,”[1] usually translated as “kindness” or “courtesy.” You see: it’s way more than language and architecture; it’s the whole human instinct of kindness, courtesy, welcome.

What is humanitas? Some examples that Sr. Donald gave: at one time there was a sign over the entrance gate to the city of Siena that read simply “Humanitas,” indicating that there one could find food and shelter. Another example she gave was what is called “The Italian Secret.” During World War II, the Nazi occupiers still let the Italians ride freely on their bikes wherever they wanted because the Italians were great cyclists and the Germans assumed that they were training for competitions. But actually the cyclists were hiding transit papers for Jews in the frames of their racing bicycles. That’s humanitas, the human instinct at its finest. A very practical example she gave, and one closer to home, was the Catholic Worker movement, which was inspired by the Rule of Benedict and famous for their houses of hospitality. Peter Maurin, who was one of the founders along with Dorothy Day, wrote that the Worker ought to be built on cult, culture and cultivation: meaning, liturgy, learning and right-livelihood (by which he meant self-sustaining). That’s sacred humanitas and of course coincides with the Benedictine ora et labora, as well as studia (The famous scholar of the Rule, Terrence Kardong, insists that that ought to be added to the other two if we are to do justice to the Rule.)

Another example I myself just ran into was from the French geophysicist Xavier le Pichon. This is the man who helped create the field of plate tectonics but who has also spent his life living in intentional communities centered around people with mental disabilities, such as l’Arche. He gives a marvelous description of humanitas––for example, when a couple has their first child. Everything revolves around the child, the weakest person in the family is the boss! And he says this is what is extremely specific of human community: it’s built around two poles, two centers. First of all we re-organize ourselves around the small one, the babies; otherwise there is no life possible. But that we share with all mammals. The other pole for humans is that we also re-organize around those who are in great difficulty because of suffering, sickness, handicap, or when life is coming to an end. And le Pichon says that really is new and special. “It becomes a society which we call human––humane… It is different from animal society. There is a new touch, a new kindness, a new softness, a new way of living which is … introduced by the fact that you put the weakest in the center of the community.” That’s sacred humanitas; that’s the instinct of what it means to be human.

If you do a search for “John Paul II and humanism” you will find a series of articles by his famous biographer George Weigel. One of them is about John Paul II’s 1995 speech at the United Nations that was emblematic of his stance, a stance that could be a good antidote for what ails our American political discourse in the early 21st century. “Because of the radiant humanity of Christ,” he says, “nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one.” And so the pope asked that the Church only be able to propose respectfully its message of salvation, but also to be able to promote, “in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.” Weigel wrote that the Holy Father was trying to show that respectful dialogue with those who are “other” isn’t in tension with Christian orthodoxy; nor is respectful encounter with others in tension with safeguarding the deposit of faith. As a matter of fact, respectful encounter and dialogue are what Christian orthodoxy demands! That too is the new sacred humanitas, and hospitality in the broadest sense of the word, along with charity and service, and a sense of the solidarity of the entire human family.

Which brings us back to someone like Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker. It is a beautiful holy thing to stare at the face of Jesus like Mary did, but we should also be able to see the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the smelly, my annoying brother, my emotionally needy sister, the special needs child, the immigrant, my spouse with whom I am no longer enamored, my co-worker, the brother who lives in the cell next to me. We should never neglect to offer humanitas to strangers. As we find out in the story of Abraham under the terebinths of Mamre, we never know when we might be entertaining angels––and they may be bringing us great gifts! And then they might become the hosts. Saint Benedict understood this when he urged his monks to welcome all guests as if they were Christ—and show them every humanitas.DSC_3756

So, on the anniversary of the founding of New Camaldoli, this is my question––and my dream: In what way has New Camaldoli been a center of this sacred humanitas in the years past and it what ways can it continue to be so? In what new ways can it be that? In what way has New Camaldoli been a place of encounter and dialogue these past 58 years, and how can it continue to be that? In what new ways can it be that? I want to reiterate John Paul’s remarks and insert the word “monk” instead: Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the heart of the monk, and the love of Christ does not distract monks from interest in others, but rather invites them to responsibility for others, to the exclusion of no one, so as to be able to promote––and model!––, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family. We pray that as we welcome Jesus in our midst––in the sacramental signs, yes, but also in the face of the stranger, the visitor, the odd and the beautiful––that we could find that new touch, the new kindness, the new softness, and the new way of living, so that Jesus would then welcome us too to his wedding banquet.

[1] RB 53:9––Legatur coram hospite lex divina ut aedificetur, et post haec omnis ei exhibeatur humanitas.

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