Contemplation and Prayer IV©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
Contemplative prayer is rooted in humility, without which it lacks sufficient openness to wonder and grace. Humility is the foundation of prayer and serves to establish a right relationship with God, with others and with the universe that sings the praises of God, often in the most discreet ways. Only when we acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” (Romans 8: 26) are we ready to receive the gift of prayer from God’s Holy Spirit.
The Catholic Catechism reminds us that the gift of contemplative prayer “can be accepted only in humility and poverty.” (2713) Humility begins from the premise that all goodness, each wondrous thing and our very capacity to experience wonder comes from God. There is an intensity of contemplative prayer that is perceptible only to the eyes of a pure heart and is always grounded in joy and love.
Humility bears witness to the truth, just as Jesus, who was born, lived and died in humility, testified to the truth at his trial. (John 18: 37) On the other hand, pride is blindness. It sees only what false desire covets. Fear is blindness because it denies everything that lies beyond walls of false security. The universe that was created in love by God and that we admire with child-like hearts is far vaster than the illusions that are created by falsehood and fear. It gives voice to God’s goodness and invites us to enter the mystery of a Trinitarian dynamic that is unimaginably creative and healing.
I see that by humility (and) the virtue of faith…you have taken hold of that incomparable treasure hidden in the field of the world and the hearts of men with which you have purchased that field of him by whom all things have been made from nothing.
(Saint Clare of Assisi, The Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague)
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Humility is both an attitude and an insight. It rests on the knowledge that each person possesses inherent dignity because he or she was lovingly created in God’s image and purposed to a mission with a set of particular gifts. Included in that awareness is an understanding that human life is marked by limitations and fragility.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. She became aware of the nature of this fragility and focused her work on authenticity and vulnerability. She concluded that frank awareness of this vulnerability is the key to authenticity and honesty in relationships. This principle applies equally to human interactions and to contemplative prayer.
A little more than a year ago, she gave a talk in which she laid out her thesis: “We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence–and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause—we are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.
“The problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
“One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.
“We perfect but it doesn’t work. And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect–make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems I think that we see today.
“We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee—and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult—to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, ‘Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?’ just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’
“And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, ‘I’m enough,’ then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.
(Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability)
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The key to understanding Saint Francis’ prevailing attitude of humility is gratitude. For reasons that we will never fully know, he came to see everything within and around him as gift from the gracious King of kings, Lord of lords, the most generous and good God of creation, of salvation and of joy. From the perspective of humility and poverty, he opened his body, mind and heart to the providential care of Almighty Love. It was in total trust—one might add child-like innocence—that he adopted the stance of the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields that “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet (our) heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6: 25-34)
Humility enabled Saint Francis to embrace his vulnerability rather than numb it as he had as a frivolous adolescent. He overcame his fears—fear of his father, fear of unpopularity, fear of leprosy—to live in fragility as a sign of his confidence in his heavenly Father’s unconditional love. Poverty was humility’s bloom. By it, he would declare to God that nothing, save what came from the generous heart of God, held value any longer. No fortress could bring peace to his mind; no fortune or fame could bring joy to his heart. Only the love of God could deliver him from the demons that haunted him.
There are many references to humility in the writings of Saint Francis. One that stands out for me is article 19 of the Admonitions, which some have called “The Franciscan Sermon on the Mount.” In it, he writes, “Blessed is the servant who esteems himself not better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered unworthy, simple and despicable; for what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more.” I would add, “And nothing less.”
The insight here, I believe, is twofold. First, it liberates us from the often-self-serving judgment of others. When someone pays us a complement or registers a complaint, it is very often more of a reflection on them than it is on us. Yet that opinion can weigh heavily on our psyche and distract us from our mission. Second, it suggests that God has a fairer estimation of us—at once dignifying and edifying. We are neither worthless nor hopeless in his eyes.
Humility put Saint Francis in right relationship with God and others. Paired with poverty it recognized our dependency on God and our desire for nothing that does not come from God. It was the foundation of virtue, the model of Christ-like behaviour and the antidote to pride that infects the heart and leads to all manner of sin. Humility also serves as a counterweight to offset the tendency in all of us to judge others, often harshly and unfairly.
Humility is highly valued in Franciscan spirituality and is a necessary predisposition to contemplative prayer because it is the gateway to Truth. Our regard for talent and abilities are balanced with the knowledge that they are not from us or even for us. They have value inasmuch as we use them to play our part in the building of a Kingdom of Love.
Saint Francis’ desire to serve in humility…provides the key to understanding the poverello.
(Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady, Francis and Clare: The Complete Works)
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May you have the wisdom and courage to embrace with humility the blessings of God’s creation. May you know his grace to be sufficient. May his peace and his joy satisfy your deepest yearning.
Crib and Cross