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Stumbling blocks

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Our road is the doctrine of the gospel, and Christ is the road’s end; the foot which carries us along this road is the affection of the mind which naturally tends toward what is in front, but it quickly stumbles when it transgresses through vice. On this road there are wayfarers: blind pride, envy which sees, humility which does not see, and charity which does see. The road contains both good and bad, but the end discriminates between them. Blind pride does not see where it is going and refuses to be led. Envy thinks to itself that it sees, and judges that all whom it does not lead are going astray, though it does not wish to lead anyone. These often scandalize, and are scandalized by each other. Often they so stumble as to fall, and when they have fallen they rarely and with difficulty succeed in rising again. Humility, unseeing, holds out its hand to be led, and of it is said, “Cursed be he who places a stumbling block in front of the blind man.” Charity, seeing, chooses, as it were, to move less in its progress, in order not to desert humility. (William of St Thierry, Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, 14:13)

Our immediate temptation while reading this is to see ourselves as charitable and our enemies as envious or prideful. And it will not do simply to assert the reverse (true as it may be), that we should seek to cleanse our pride and envy for the sake of humility. The humble, in this image, allow themselves to be led by the charitable, but also by (potentially) the envious. The road to Jesus — if I can point to an excess of recent experience — is a lot like roads in New England: damnably congested by both human incompetence and inadequate infrastructure.

We might apply, then, a truism along the lines of “we’re all in this together.” But the image of stumbling in Paul’s Epistle, and William’s exposition of it, complicates that social-empowerment model with a deep sense of our inability to realize it. It is not even that the blind are leading the blind, it is that the self-deceived blind (who think they can see) trip the other blind and make what might have been stop-and-go traffic into a full-scale roadblock.

Charity, like the Good Samaritan, is not first you or me, but Christ. It is only in him that we can be “all in this together”, that our sense of responsibility for one another can have any meaning or hope of fulfillment. And, if he is any example, sometimes charity allows itself to be led astray by envy, even to the point of death, for the sake of the brethren.

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