Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Etching.

It does not take courage to be authentically yourself; it takes humility.

There is a particular path in life, shared by many intellectually and emotionally brilliant people, that, instead of being a structure for the flourishing of intelligent people, has been a well-decorated and scenic path that leads to the corruption of the soul. Having been in the different nooks and crannies of both religious and secular academia, and of market success and religious life and art, I have been privileged to gather numerous examples of this particular pattern – some of which have tempted me. The path can be overwhelming in its influence, and the pattern has become, in my mind at least, a particularly pernicious rut.

Thomas Merton astutely wrote, “Many poets are not poets for exactly the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 98). Brilliant men and women of the most honoured careers – engineers, clergy and monastics, entrepreneurs, professors, doctors, lawyers – never get around to being the person they were intended to be by God. They never become the person or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years trying to be some other person or saint, some other business hero, or some other researcher. For many absurd reasons, they are convinced they need to become some other person who died 200 years ago, and who lived in very different circumstances. They wear out their bodies and minds in the hopeless endeavour of writing somebody else’s poems or possessing somebody else’s spirituality.

There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular – too lazy and fearful to think of anything better. Haste ruins poets, professors, entrepreneurs, and clergy alike. Rushing corrupts saints and artists and philosophers. They want quick success and are in such a hurry to get it that they cannot take the time to be true to themselves. And when madness overwhelms them, they argue that their very impetus is a species of integrity and authenticity.

In the greatest of people, you find that integrity, authenticity, and complete humility exist in near-perfect harmony. Authenticity and humility turn out practically to be the same thing. The Catholics are certainly on to something to honour particular persons with sainthood: saints are unlike everyone else precisely because they are humble.

As far as the particular contingencies of life are concerned, humility can be quite content with whatever satisfies the lifestyle of everyday people. But that does not mean that the essence of humility consists in being just like everybody else. Rather, humility consists in being exactly the person you are before God, regardless of appearances, opinions, tastes, or ways of doing things.  If you have the humility to be yourself, then you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. But this individuality – this authentic, unique self – will not make itself known on the surface of everyday life. It will not be a matter of tastes, or opinions, or ways of doing things. It is something deep in the soul.

The truly humble person will not conflict with the ordinary ways, customs, and habits of others. The saints do not get excited about what people eat and drink, what they wear, or what they hang on their walls. To make conformity with others in these contingencies a matter of life or death is to fill your soul with confusion and noise. In being indifferent to all of this, the humble person takes whatever there is in the world to help her find God – and leaves the rest aside.

She can see quite clearly that what is useful to her may be useless for somebody else, and what helps others to be saints might ruin her. Such humility carries with it a deep refinement of spirit, peacefulness, common sense, and sensitivities without which a moral character is impossible.

It is not humility to insist on being someone you are not. It is as much as saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. How can you reach your proper destination if you insist on taking the road to another person’s city? How can one experience their own particular flourishing by leading someone else’s life? And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself and be nobody but the person, artist, writer, or teacher that God intended you to be.

A warning: You will be made to feel that your honesty is only pride. This is a serious temptation because you can never be sure whether you are being true to your actual self or building up a defense of your false personality that is a creature of your own appetite for esteem.

The greatest humility can come from maintaining your balance in the tension. We need to continue to be ourselves without being stubborn about it – in other words, without asserting one’s false self against the false selves of other people.

Your authenticity cannot be acquired like acquiring a pair of shoes, i.e. by walking into a store and trying on several pairs choosing a pair of shoes that fits.  One can walk out with a pair of shoes 20 minutes later and wear them for so long. Some people choose their vocations in such a way – that it erodes their authentic selves. They are eager to get the first available system that fits and walk around with it for their life.

I have seen many professors fall victim to this; they devote themselves to many books of learning and many years of study and research without considering how much of their education applies to their lives. Their chief concern is to acquire as many of the “contingencies,” i.e., signs of success, as possible, and to decorate their personhood with the signs of perfection. And they walk around with shoes that fit other people and other situations.

The more thoroughly they do this, the more aptly are their spiritual disguises to be much admired. Like skillful artists, they become commercial. After this, there is not much hope for them. They are good people, yes; but they have become satisfied with their own brand of authenticity and with the signs of success with which they have dressed themselves.

Such so-called authenticity may only be the result of mutual flattery. The success of such people confirms their neighbors in their own prejudices and allows them to forget what is missing in their communal morality. It makes them all feel that they are “right”, that they are on the correct path, on the right side of history, and that God is satisfied with their collective way of life. Nothing needs to be changed. But anyone who opposes this situation is, therefore, wrong – scapegoated, to use the words of Rene Girard. The so-called “authentic” figure is there to justify the complete elimination of those who are “unholy”, who are those that do not conform.

So too in art or literature. The so-called best poets are those who happen to succeed in a way that flatters our current prejudice about what constitutes good poetry. One whose idiom is not quite the same is shunned; we dare not read her. For if we are discovered to have done so, we would be excommunicated.

Our bourgeois society – meaning our academics, clergy, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and engineers – is infected with clever, insolent servility. This servility is infected with a mix of ambition, stubbornness, and flexibility, a “third ear” tuned in to the slightest modulation of cliché. With all this, you can pass as a saint or a genius provided you conform to the right group. Such a person will be blamed, but this blame is a source of pride because it will come from a scapegoat or a group of them. Such blame is worn as a badge of honor. But what might be more telling of this actual inauthenticity is that you may not be enthusiastically praised, even by your own friends. But they know exactly what motivates you. They fully accept your standards. They “dig” you. You are canonized as an embodiment of their own complacency.

One of the first signs of a saint is that other people don’t know what to make of her. In fact, they are not sure if she is crazy or merely proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by an ideal that nobody but God really comprehends. And she has inescapable difficulties applying all the abstract norms of success to her own life. She cannot seem to fit her life in with the books.

She has to be dismissed and sent back to the world like Benedict Joseph Labre, who wanted to be a Trappist monk and a Carthusian and succeeded in neither. He finally ended up as a homeless beggar. He died in some street in Rome. And yet the only canonized saint, venerated by the entire Catholic Church, who actually lived as a Cistercian or a Carthusian since the Middle Ages is St. Benedict Joseph Labre.

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