April 2, 2009

Preceding Holy Week, A Humble Desert Mother Speaks

Olympias was a 4th-century Christian deaconess who lived around Constantinople. Her inheritance of a considerable fortune -- the subject of much wrangling whilst in survivorship up until her late 20s -- allowed her to share wealth with the poorest of the poor, construct and establish churches and monastic communities, and enjoy friendship with several of the era's best-known theologians including John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil the Great.

Olympias was not just some social player who threw her money around to look good. Any noble bearing others might have ascribed to her on her behalf was clearly rooted in a deep reverence and humility.

One biography described Olympias as having had
a life without vanity, an appearance without pretence, character without affectation, a face without adornment; she kept watch without sleeping, she had an immaterial body, a mind without vainglory, intelligence without conceit, an untroubled heart, an artless spirit, charity without limits, unbounded generosity, contemptible clothing, immeasurable self-control, rectitude of thought, undying hope in God, ineffable almsgiving ...
and ends the description
... she was the ornament of all the humble.
As a priest in the Church, I no longer feel I can afford to imagine that I was ever "needed" to become a presbyter. Certainly I have been able to help in my own small way. For me, I think God needed to put a collar on me so that I might learn a thing or two about humility. Perhaps I was not called so much to the priesthood as to a school for humility.

Not that all priests comport themselves humbly, and not that I do myself -- at least not with any sort of reliability, any kind of regularity or durability. I am aware, but only faintly, of just how much hypocrisy is required for me to even consider publishing a few thoughts on the subject.

Ah, but Olympias, my muse. Ornament of the humble. Spread some light.

We are so close now to Palm Sunday. We will march in procession with our palm branches and hail Jesus in that same manner in which he was used by the crowd to promote dangerous political satire. Then we will race ahead in time a few days (perhaps we can remember what he did in the Temple in between) and listen as he is subjected to crowd taunts and kangaroo courts. Then we will drag ourselves into the courtyard with him, strip him, march him up the hill, and crucify him.

Acclaimed as one thing and killed as another. By us. For us.

Then we do it all over again -- Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. Out of the grave and back in again.

Where is there quarter in any of this for human pride? How can this meta-narrative possibly accommodate our own self-satisfaction?

If we find we can roll down the windows and whistle our way home on days like Palm Sunday and Good Friday, then you have to wonder: What, exactly, did Olympias accomplish?

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