Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

God’s math: Subtracting ourselves brings multiplication in spiritual life

Published: July 10, 2021

By Brother Roch McClellan, OSB
Subiaco Abbey

Humans are very good at excuses and the blame game: I sin because everyone is doing it. I get angry and retaliate, but it’s because of what someone else said or did. Most famously of all, “the devil made me do it.” 

While I certainly do not discount the insidiousness of the devil, I do believe that we are often our own worst enemies. I remember the Walt Kelly cartoon strip Pogo and his famous line: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." 

In our daily lives, we often forget God and encase ourselves in a stony shell of our ego. What tool can break us out of ourselves? Humility. 

In our daily lives, we often forget God and encase ourselves in a stony shell of our ego. What tool can break us out of ourselves? Humility. 

And what is humility? It is simply recognizing and living the truth that without God, we are nothing. Humility grinds off the hard layers of our ego, and it is the consistent practice of humility that orients us away from ourselves and toward Christ.

John 3:30 gives us the perfect recipe for humility: “He must increase; I must decrease.”

A Scriptural example is Luke 18:9-14: “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ … for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

The Pharisee believes he lives a spiritual life, but he has placed all focus on himself. Notice that he has “his position,” and he prays “to himself.” Four times he says “I.” He is living a spiritual life by and for himself. 

Meanwhile, the tax collector's focus is on God and recognizing that man is nothing without God’s mercy.

When we study the lives of the saints, we see that they all learned the closer they got to God, the more clearly they could see their imperfections, like those tiny motes of dust that can only be seen in a shaft of bright sunlight.

In cinematic terms, think of the hero riding off into the sunset. The large, glowing sun fills the horizon. As the person moves nearer and nearer to the horizon, they become a smaller and smaller speck. Finally, they disappear completely into the light. That is what St. John and all the saints desired: to become less of themselves and more of the Son. And so must we.

In spiritual direction, I make a conscious effort to leave Brother Roch outside the room. I listen. I actively listen to the person I’m with, and I also listen to the Holy Spirit. When I do speak, it is not Brother Roch questioning or directing, but the Holy Spirit. I acknowledge that God is the true director in control, and I trust him to lead and provide the right words. I decrease so that he may increase. 

Humility narrows the gap between each of us and, in doing so, narrows the gap between each of God and us. When we look our neighbor in the eye and humbly say, “please, tell me more,” we decrease so that he may increase. 

Brother Roch McClellan, OSB, is the oblate director and a spiritual director at Subiaco Abbey.

Understanding Our Church