"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Humility: The Quiet Virtue (Sunday, Septembe16, 2012)

 I was never a huge Monty Python fan, although I have found some of their antics amusing over the years. And while I wouldn’t call their 1979 film, Life of Brian, one of my favorite movies of all time, I did enjoy it. There are scenes from it which I remember, which have carved their places in my memory.

            One such scene is the film’s depiction of the “Sermon on the Mount”, more particularly, Jesus delivering the Beatitudes to the assembled crowd.

            Well, the characters in the film are in the cheap seats, way off on the fringe, and they’re not really paying attention, they’re squabbling among themselves, and this is in the days before public address systems and “Surround Sound” and what have you, so they’re having more than a little trouble hearing what Jesus is saying.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” for instance, becomes “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” Not quite the same thing.

By the time they come to “Blessed are the meek,” Mrs. Big Nose, a couple of rows toward the front, has to explain what’s going on.

“Oh, it's the meek!” she says. “Blessed are the meek! Oh, that's nice, isn't it? I'm glad they're finally getting something, 'cause they have a hell of a time, the meek do.”

They sure do. Meekness (and humility) are hardly virtues that seem highly esteemed in our contemporary world. No, it seems as though today it is celebrity that we worship: celebrity, esteem, notoriety, being noticed, being affirmed, being recognized, getting to sit at the front table, sit in the front row of seats. The most banal mediocrities command our attention, while often (too often) the truly heroic and virtuous goes unrecognized and certainly unrewarded.

It reminds me of a cartoon I saw once in the New Yorker. A woman is speaking to her friend. She says: “I just spent an hour with my manicurist and pedicurist, after having done a ninety-minute workout with my personal trainer at the gym, a lunch with my low-carb support group, and now I need to go for my botox injections and my yoga class. I just don’t have any time for myself anymore!”

As the great social activist William Sloane Coffin once said, “There is no smaller package in the world than someone who is all wrapped up in himself.” Or, as my friend and colleague Deane Starr once put it, “When we worship at the altar of our own egos, we worship at a very small altar.”

Now, I have nothing against self-development or self-actualization, and the voyage of self-discovery is an important one for all of us to take. “Know thyself,” the ancients counseled, and they were right. There is much to be said in favor of paying attention to who we are, each of us, because if we remain mysteries to ourselves, then not much else in life is going to make much sense either. We should, each of us, like who we are. We should know ourselves—cherish ourselves even-- as a unique being in the cosmos, unlike any other, with particular gifts and talents and deep treasures within our soul. A certain amount of ego—a good dose of self-esteem, helps us to get through life in a confident and effective manner. Self-loathing-- constantly berating ourselves, and denigrating ourselves, and going through life apologizing for taking up space-- is certainly unhealthy; it is, really, an insult to our Creator; it’s a form of blasphemy, really.

But if we buy into our culture’s delusion that “It’s all about me”—that these lives of ours should be nothing more than one long campaign to “find ourselves” , then we are most likely to lose ourselves instead. A life which is turned in completely on itself-- which thinks “It’s all about me. It’s all about my wants, my needs”-- is, more often than not, a life which will eventually wither and die from its isolation from others—from being cut off from the genuine, mutual nurture and caring which only total sharing with others—total immersion in the rough and tumble struggle of life (in which we’re not supposed to get our way more than 50% of the time)-- can bring. A life lived in isolation, for itself alone, might seem “successful” on the outside—it might even accumulate plenty of wealth and fame and even power. But at its center there will be an empty core. That which is done for something greater than ourselves truly abides; it transcends the generations, from age to age. But that which is done only for our small and puny power, or for pleasure or wealth alone, either simply dies with us, or leads us down a path of disaster, dishonor, and despair.

As Mother Teresa was completing her first visit to America, she remarked that she had never before seen a society of such human isolation, on the verge of spiritual bankruptcy. “The reason you have no peace,” she said, “is that you have forgotten that you belong to each other.”

It is our humility which keeps us on the pathway of life, which reminds us that we belong to one another. As Rilke wrote:

Each thing—

each stone, blossom, child—

is held in place.

Only we, in arrogance,

push out beyond what we belong to

for some empty freedom.


If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

[and to the humility that keeps us connected]

we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Humility is a quiet virtue; it’s a forgotten virtue, really, in this narcissistic celebrity culture of ours. But real humility is not merely a game we play, a bit of play-acting in which we indulge in order to manipulate and impress other people, to show them how “humble” we are, to lower expectations, to falsely downplay our strengths in order to make them seem the greater. Humility is not just an option we turn on or off on a whim to get people to like us, or pity us, or go along with us. Humility is, rather, a critically important aspect of human living; it is standard operating equipment for anyone who genuinely seeks to be a spiritual and compassionate human being.

            And humility requires certain things of us.

Humility requires us to look beyond our own circumstances to the circumstances of others (and to draw that circle of concern just as widely as we can). Norman Cousins reminds us that each of us is but a single cell in the six billion cells of the great body of humankind. “[Our] needs are individual,” Cousins writes, “but they are not unique.” It is our sense of compassion—our deep sense of empathy and interdependence—which makes possible our deepest reverence for life.

Humility does not require that we wallow co-dependently in the pain of others; nor does it require that we take on inordinate guilt about our own good fortune. But a true sense of humility reminds us that, if we are to be true to our divine birthright, that our good fortune obligates us to the service of others, and that each of us has a role to play in helping to heal the pain of all the creatures of our Mother Earth.

Humility does not require that we deny our gifts and talents and abilities. But it does require that we acknowledge our limitations.

Canute the Dane was conqueror and king of England during the early years of the 11th century. Chroniclers tell us that, more than anything, he loathed the obsequiousness of his royal retinue. He grew so tired of all the excessive praise and flattery they heaped upon him, that one day Canute ordered that his throne be brought down to the seashore. He then gathered together all of his court, and had them stand all around him: mounted cavalry and knights in shining armor, and musicians and priests and bishops and lords and ladies of the Court, all gathered together, in all of their worldly splendor and extravagance. All this “great party” stood by the side of the “great king” as he sat atop his steed by the side of the sea.

He ordered them just to stand there. And as the tide began to come in, and the waves started to dash against the shore, Canute held up his scepter, and he commanded the incoming tide to cease.

Well, the sea didn’t listen. The incoming tides soon proved the futility of the all the king’s commanding, the absurdity of all the false glory that had been heaped upon him. The king got soaked. His retinue got soaked. So Canute hoped that an important lesson about humility managed to sink in as well.

Sometimes, when things are going well for us, we might even delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control of all those forces in which we live and move and have our being. But usually when we start thinking this way, the tides of life have this way of reminding us that we’re not in control of everything, and that the tides of life have this way of washing over us, and getting us all wet, too. “Man plans, and God laughs,” an old Jewish proverb tells us. Or, if you prefer, “We propose, and the universe hiccups.”

Humility also reminds us that while each of us might have our own truths, that none of us owns the truth. No religion, no government, no political party, no one country owns the truth. One thing that both totalitarian political systems and fundamentalist religions lack is humility. When the two become allied together, then the results can be deadly, as we have seen again in recent days.

            Humility also reminds us that we are connected to others (including many others we do not see and do not know) and that our actions often have much broader consequences than we know. We might want to say whatever we want to, whenever we want. We might claim that we have the “right” to do whatever we want; to make any video we feel like making. But we have to remember that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is going to have consequences. And humility, in this modern world of instantaneous communication, means remembering that perhaps the entire world has become a crowded theater.

Humility reminds us continually not to rush to judgment, not to stand over others in judgment, but rather, seek ways to stand beside them in under-standing.

Humility is the source of true compassion. And it is from compassion that love and justice flow.

If we human beings are to learn to live once again in balance upon this beautiful planet which is our home, we need to recover, as a species, our deep sense of humility, our deep sense that we did not weave the web of life, but are merely strands in it. As Vaclav Havel once said:

“Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment. The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility.”

Humility is the sources of all true spirituality. It is our innate sense of humility—our deep inner sense that we inhabit a cosmos infinitely larger than we are—more expansive than our human reasoning can ever comprehend—which gives rise to our yearning to be fed and nurtured spiritually.

Being humble means knowing ourselves as children of one Great Mystery.

We are,each one of us, simply lovely human beings. I like all of you. I even like me. We’re amazing creatures, each one of us, really. Blessed with such awesome powers to think, to create, to build, to love.

But humility reminds us that the greatness of our souls only comes to full fruition in relationship to others. Souls—like wealth—are meant to be spent; they’re meant to be shared. We are meant to pour our beings out onto the face of the Earth—even to give them away, if need be.

Anthony DeMello tells the story of a man who was considered very holy by all those around him. He lived a life that was very strict and austere, to the point that, every day, he would let no food or drink pass his lips while the sun was still in the sky. In what seemed to be a sign of heavenly approval for his actions, a bright star shone on top of a nearby mountain, visible to everyone in broad daylight, though no one knew what had brought the star there.

One day this holy man decided to climb the mountain. A little village girl insisted on going with him. The day was warm and soon the two were thirsty. He urged the child to drink but she said she wouldn’t unless he drank some water, too. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to break his fast until sunset; but he worried about the child, it was so hot, and didn’t want her to become sick from thirst. So, finally, he let go of his way of doing things, his manner of holiness, and he drank some water; the little girl did, too.

For a long time he dared not to look up to the sky, for he feared that his star had disappeared. But when he finally looked up, there wasn’t one star shining in the sky, but two-- two stars shining brightly above the mountain.

For the truly humble, for those not stuck on themselves, but from whom love radiates outward from their inner selves to all the world, the sky is filled with stars too numerous to count, and blessings too abundant to imagine.

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