Search This Blog

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jousting with humility (C22O)

Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God. (Sir. 3:18)

...when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place... 
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk. 14:10-11)

Where do people find the time to write every day? Is there some literary sugar-daddy society out there that doles out cash for people to wonder in words? If so, I'd like the email address, which I will also forward to my daughter Claire who, sadly, caught her father's penchant for cybergab in the helical G-U-A-C-amole of the genetic lottery. Last week, I so wanted to follow up on that business about prophets with some real-life stuff, but have not had a moment this week, being a tad under the weather myself and riding the tsunami of the late summer transition to parish autumn chaos. Rather than let that happen twice in one week, I thought I'd try to finish with a few thoughts on this Sunday's readings and music, and maybe I can get around to part two of the prophet thing one of these days. It's not like it only comes up occasionally in the gospel! (I offered a few thoughts in my last post, here.)

Humility is one of those religious words, church talk. It's rarely invoked in secular hagiographies, except as an antonym for hubris, which is bad. I don't think we Americans see humility much as a virtue, maybe just less a vice than its opposite. That's certainly the meaning that Guinevere has in mind when she asks Lancelot, in the scene in Camelot in which they meet at a castle picnic, "Have you jousted with humility lately?" Lance sees his knightly prowess as self-endowed, as exhibited in his introductory song "C'est Moi," and she finds his boasting, accurate as it might be, tiresome and unattractive. We don't like our celebrities to be too full of themselves, either, and we're careful not to toot our own horn too much except at job interviews and other times of dire necessity.

But I don't think that the gospel is interested in humility as the opposite of hubris. I think the gospel sees humility as a virtue in itself. As a virtue, it must share something of the nature of the divine, or at least imitate the divine. How can we see God as humble? Looking at the churches in which we worship, the vesture of our shamans, and the curricula vitae of many powerful Christians in business and government, that might be a difficult question to answer.

Most of us have heard at one time or another in a homily or English class that the etymology of the words "humility" and "humble" hearken to the Latin humus, the word for earth (in the sense of dirt, not the planet, which hadn't been invented yet.) So maybe being called "humble" was a mild pejorative, seen to be "low as dirt," or even "dirty", as in, "Gee, that's a humble little crib you bought, dude" or "Cripes, a Rambler? Humble wheels." I like to think of it, though, in the humus context, as self-aware, as cognizant of mortality, knowing that we are "dust." When we take our mortality seriously, have a sense that we do not ultimately control our own destiny, let alone that of the cosmos, we have taken a significant step in the journey of learning humility. Humble means knowing that none of us is self-made, which is a virtue even in an atheist. Secular humility might be the sense that we have had a mortal beginning, will have a mortal end, and that all that we are or will be is the product of luck, genetics, and maybe, maybe a little motivation or cooperation. Such humility might lead one to a life of excellence and altruism, even make true love possible.

For Christians, though, it seems to me that the only way that we can see humility as a virtue is that it is first a characteristic of God. The only way that Jesus could say, "Whoever humbles himself will be exalted" or "whoever wishes to be the greatest must serve the rest" or "love your enemies" or anything else that is insanely hard for mortals to do, is if God does those things, and therefore they are imitable by us as virtue. If we see God as king, lawmaker, Lord of Lords, ruler of armies, any of that lot, it stands to reason that over time we will want to be like God, imitate God. Having more, being rich and powerful, is godlike. But the gospel, and certainly St. Paul's interpretation of the meaning of Jesus in the letters, is quite different. For Paul and the evangelists, the greatness of God is shown in kenosis, in the pouring-out of godliness, and in agape, the total self-gift of God whose perfect manifestation is the Holy Spirit.

In the unfolding biblical story of God's humility, God "makes a home for the poor," as our Psalm 68 says today, by taking the Hebrews from their slavery and establishing them in a country of their own. As they develop their law, special protections are put in place for the poor, for orphans, widows, and aliens, so that they are not forgotten. Israel is admonished to keep in mind what God did for them, "making a home for the poor," and to treat other people the same. In the age of the kings, the enthronement psalms often did the same, reminding the kings to "govern the people with equity, and the lowly with kind judgment," and to "have pity on the afflicted and poor," to "rescue the poor when they cry out."

The humility of God is an invitation to solidarity with everyone. Joining in that downward and outward movement of faith, so remarkably embraced and preached by Pope Francis, is the path to the end of envy, consumerism, and violence. Once our vision has changed from accumulation and striving for some kind of opulent "best in show" in life, it is possible for us to change the fractured path of humanity from a story of envy, mistrust, and violence between "haves" and "have nots" to a new Way of mutuality and shared wealth, where all may or may not have the same, but all have enough for meaningful and secure living. And all this because, as the letter to the Hebrews says, "You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast," but a rather a God who did not deem godliness itself something to be grasped, but emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

This is a first stanza of a song I wrote last year that is about some of these things, which we sang for Holy Thursday and Christ the King, and which we will sing for our masses tomorrow. It's called, "To You Who Bow."

To you who bow, to you who bend,
To you who do not cling to heaven,
But unto us descend,
You who summon us as servants,
And call your servants "friends,"
To you we lift our song, Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you. 
(© 2014 GIA Publications)