October 2001

Humble Pie (2) ©

To figure out how long it will take to accomplish a given task, it sometimes helps to work backwards from the time when the output will be needed. The same is true of a journey. Such planning also helps to understand what intermediary steps are required.

If we think of this process in terms of our Christian mission, it is possible to see that certain milestones must be crossed in order to reach our ultimate destination. Instinctively, our mind is inclined to leap to the endpoint, which is Love.

Yet, to love, as Jesus taught us to love, certain dispositions are essential. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reveals to us numerous characteristics that typify Christian love, which emanates from God, who the evangelist John describes as Love; was incarnated in Jesus; and calls us each day through the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Aside from the salvific directive to dedicate ourselves to God unreservedly, this is Jesus’ exhortation to which all others are subjected: Love one another, as I have loved you.

Paul reminds us that such love is patient and kind; not jealous or snobbish; never rude, self-seeing or prone to anger nor does it brood over injuries; rejoices with the truth; and has no limit to its forbearance, to its trust, its hope and its power to endure. When we take these qualities of true love into careful consideration, we may conclude that they cannot be achieved without a keen sense of generosity, and a healthy disposition toward otherness.

The Lord stood by me, and gave me strength.
– 2 Timothy 16

Generosity, in turn, cannot be conceived without a sincere sense of gratitude. We give readily once we have a sense of our own plenitude in Christ.

Gratitude, for its part, is more readily realised if it is rooted in simplicity. We cannot satisfy inordinate expectations, but we can experience fullness once we develop a wholesome appreciation of the difference between fundamental needs and insatiable wants. And desires.

It is useful to reflect on this definition of plenitude: Peace and joy come from appreciating what we have; restlessness and bitterness, on the other hand, are the inevitable consequences of focusing attention on what we do not have.

This we can readily understand. The problem with simplicity is that it does not erupt spontaneously. It is a deliberate and pre-meditated focus on the essentials of life and of our own inherent giftedness. Simplicity requires confidence and courage. In fact, humility is the surest sign of strength.

This courage is rooted in our understanding of the power we have in God. It presupposes that we are not frightened by the limitations we understand ourselves to possess, because God’s power is the only reliable power.

The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.
– Sirach 35: 20

For this reason, a humble person is unafraid of the possibility of failure. Perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God, before whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle.

Simplicity requires humility, and a proper understanding of what humility means.

Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. Rather, humility is an honest appraisal of our capabilities and limitations. It invites us to use our many gifts in ways that build up the community, which we call the Kingdom or family of God.

At the same time, it invites us to view our limitations as opportunities for nourishing relationship, not of dependency, but of interdependency. Such limitations foster a sense of solidarity, celebrate the giftedness of others and breed compassion.

Indeed, humility is such a powerful engine of spiritual development that it is key to perfect joy. In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton argued that humility is the only safe guard against despair: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten misery of knowing himself to be lost.

“In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.

“But the man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self- pity.” He ends by asserting unequivocally: “Humility is the surest sign of strength”.

Bottom line: in perfect humility, our soul is one with Jesus, who taught us to be humble and to trust in the Father’s power to succeed in all things, as witnessed by his resurrection.

All who humble themselves will be exalted.
– Luke 18: 14

In his book Simplicity: The Art of Living, Richard Rohr, a widely published Franciscan speaker and writer, comments on the path to a spirituality of the Simple Life by drawing our attention to a view of God that is difficult for us to internalize.

“It’s amazing”, he writes, “that Christianity is the only religion that dares to call God a lamb. And nevertheless we’ve spent two thousand years avoiding vulnerability. Paul says straight out, ‘When I am weak, I am strong’. But we’re afraid of discovering this sort of strength.”

Applying the expressions “less in more”, he adds, “The point isn’t just to let go of the past; it’s to let go of the future too. We have to let go of fear of the future, of our cares and our exaggerated need for security. Finally, we also have to let go of the present, the need to be something special here and now.”

Finally, he reminds of the link between simplicity, humility and freedom. “When C.G. Jung was an old man, one of his disciples read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; and he asked Jung, ‘What has your pilgrimage readily been?’ And Jung answered: ‘My journey consisted in climbing down ten thousand ladders so that now at the end of my life I can extend the hand of friendship to this little clod of earth that I am.’ That’s a free man.

“The word human comes from the Latin humus, which means earth. Being human means acknowledging that we’re made from the earth and will return to the earth. For a few years we dance around on the stage of life and have the chance to reflect a little bit of God’s glory. We are earth that has come to consciousness. If we discover this power in ourselves and know that we are God’s creatures that we come from God and return to God, that’s enough.

St. Clare of Assisi, who in the spirit of St. Francis deliberately chose a life of holy simplicity, humility and self-denial as a means of drawing closer to Jesus echoed this sentiment in telling her sisters that, with God within us, how can we say we are poor.

Similarly, St. Theresa of Avila, the 16th Century Spanish mystic, understood humility the single most important thing on earth: “It is good, indeed very good, to try to enter first into the room where self-knowledge is dealt with rather than fly off to other rooms. This is the right road, and if we can journey along a safe and level path, why should we want wings to fly? Rather, let’s strive to know God. By gazing at His grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness; by looking at His purity, we shall see our own filth; by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

Centuries before, the Father of Western monasticism had placed such emphasis on the need for humility that he made it the subject of one entire chapter of his rule: “Brethren, the Holy Scripture crieth to us saying: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk 14:11; 18:14). Since, therefore, it saith this, it showeth us that every exaltation is a kind of pride. The Prophet declareth that he guardeth is not puffed up; nor are my eyes haughty. Neither have I walked in great matters nor in wonderful things above me” (Ps 130[131]:1). What then? “If I was not humbly minded, but exalted my soul; as a child that is weaned is towards his mother so shalt Thou reward my soul” (Ps 130[131]:2). Hence, brethren, if we wish to reach the greatest height of humility, and speedily to arrive at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made in the present life by humility, then, mounting by our actions, we must erect the ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream, by means of which angels were shown to him ascending and descending (cf Gen 28:12). Without a doubt, we understand this ascending and descending to be nothing else but that we descend by pride and ascend by humility. The erected ladder, however, is our life in the present world, which, if the heart is humble, is by the Lord lifted up to heaven.”

Humility is the foundation

Humility, simplicity, poverty and prayer are the foundation-stones on which St. Francis built; and each was worked out on the basis of a literal obedience to the recorded sayings of Christ. It was this compromising challenge which drew large numbers of people to follow him into the hardships and dangers which such a way of life would inevitably contain. Scholars, explorers, poets, mystics and evangelists all found in this adventurous way of living an inspiration which nothing else could provide. Within St. Francis’ lifetime thousands had come under the spell of holiness, some to be enrolled in the Order of Friars Minor, some to enter the convents of Minoresses, and some to adopt a simpler rule of life as members of the Third Order of Penitents, today known as the Order of Secular Franciscans.

(John Moorman’s A History of The Franciscan Order)