The story is told about a young man who set out on a quest. [i] More than anything else in the world he wanted an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” He asked his question all around, but without satisfaction, and finally he heard of an old monk who lived on a mountain top in a distant land. The old monk would likely know the answer. And so the young man set out on a journey, toiling his way across the sea, over the plains and finally up onto the mountain where he faced many months of blizzards and wolves, near-starvation, and exposure.
Finally he reached the mountain top and saw signs of life around the entrance to a cave… which proved to be the old monk’s cell. In both desperation and delight the young man stumbled into the monk’s presence as he sat on the floor of his cave in deep meditation. The young man blurted out, “Most holy one, please forgive me for this interruption. But I have come all this way to ask you a question.” The old monk looked kindly on the young one, motioning him to sit down. “What is the question, my son?” Hardly able to restrain himself the young man, with an urgent tremble in his voice, said, “Please tell me: What is the meaning of life?”
The old monk paused and after some time he looked up serenely and replied, “The meaning of life… is a deep well.” The young man was shocked. He said with some indignation, “Do you mean to tell me that I sailed the sea and hiked the plain and trudged all the way up to this mountain, facing cold and wolves and starvation and almost death so you could tell me that the meaning of life is a deep well?!”
The old monk looked dismayed. Once more he paused and then he finally replied, “You mean to tell me… it isn’t a deep well?”
We’ve just come through this election season in our own land where a great deal was said about a great deal, full of sound and fury… where we heard people clearly identifying the problems and needs that surround us, and, with equal feigned clarity and confidence, named the answers. Of course, I’m talking about people who were running for public office… but I’m also talking about political commentators, and reporters, and poll takers… and myself. (I’ve had a great many opinions about all kinds of things, more opinions than I knew I had. I even said to one of my brothers this past week that I’m completely bored listening to myself offer my opinion on so many things I know so little about.) You may know of some similar experiences. And so the epistle lesson appointed for this evening, from St. Paul ‘s Letter to his disciple, Titus, is something of an elixir to grandiose promulgations and the proclivity to be right and great in our own eyes and in others. St. Paul writes that in our teaching and speaking, “show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured.” [ii] It seems to me, saying less is often more. There is this ancient tradition within monasticism called the “greater silence,” a period of time that begins in the evening, following the night prayer of Compline, until the following morning, which for us is at 9:00 a.m. We don’t speak during that time. We do gather back in the chapel several times to interrupt this greater silence, but that is for the exercise of our common prayer and praise. But we don’t speak, we don’t chat or do business or ask after one another during the greater silence. You could rightly deduce that if there is a greater silence, there must also be a “lesser silence.” And that is so.
During the time of day that we are speaking, there’s a sense that we leave the silence be and don’t interrupt the silence, unless for reason. It’s not that there’s nothing to say. Quite to the contrary, it’s because there’s so much to be heard. Speech is so precious and so powerful and it needs to be exercised with great intention. There needs to be a kind of cadence in our speech that gives space for something to be said and for what is said to be heard, and for what is heard to be understood, and for what is understood to be reverenced. That all needs space. It’s not unlike in music, without the rests there would only be noise. Without the changes in pace, without the pauses, the sound which can be so beautiful and transcending is simply a cacophony. It is the same with written and spoken language. Without space between letters and words, without separation between clauses and sentences and paragraphs, language would be gibberish. And without hesitating, without making space in our own souls to listen to the other, to reverence the other, we probably run the risk of creating the world in our own image.
This is very much how I hear the gospel lesson appointed for this evening. I ask myself, “So when Jesus speaks about attending a marriage feast, for us not to choose a seat of honor, what does that mean?” (because I actually don’t go to all that many marriage feasts – maybe one every five years or so)… It seems to me the spirit of his teaching here is his continuing point of not thinking too highly of ourselves – our opinions, our pedigree, our education, our positions, our good looks and charm and eloquence – not thinking of ourselves too highly. “Those who exalt themselves,” Jesus says, “shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” [iii] Jesus’ words here ring very true to me, though I would say that the word “humility” is not so often a part of the North American vocabulary (at least for us white males). And yet, the grace of humility appears enough times in enough ways in our scriptures to give us all pause, I would say. It seems to me that humility is a quality of life, a kind of disposition which, if you actually work at it too much, it’s likely to become its opposite.
I can remember back to my college years that, at one point, I decided to focus on the cultivation of various spiritual gifts. For awhile I fixated on the gift of humility, working very hard to become humble. In short while a number of my closest friends convinced me that this was neither helpful to their program nor to mine. By their unanimous report, I had become insufferable, predictable, overly earnest and pious, and not much fun to be around. What I called “humility,” they called pride, beautifully coiffed pride. My roommate finally told me to “Curtis, give it a rest.”
Humility comes as a by-product of living a well-practiced life. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” “near the ground,” humus being the earth, “gravity,” as St. Paul says. It seems to me that for those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, his lowly birth in Bethlehem should ground any sense of pretense we can have as Christians. The prophecies that anticipated the coming Messiah consistently speak of the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….” [iv] Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter his coming kingdom. He says to enter “as a little child. [v] Those who exalt themselves, he says, shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. [vi] Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls….” [vii] And in the end, Jesus says his commandment is to love one another as he has loved us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [viii]
I don’t know what the gift of humility might look like for you. It seems to me that we as North American Christians have an awful lot to learn from the world around us which God so loves. There are many dangers for the soul in our living in a society claiming the identity of “superpower,” this presumption of superiority. If we were to look at the world today as a village comprised of 1,000 people, there would be 564 Asians, 210 Europeans, 86 Africans, 80 South Americans, and 60 North Americans. And in this same world village of 1,000 people, 60 persons would have half the income, 500 would be hungry, 600 would live in shanty towns, and 700 would be illiterate…. [ix] God’s world. Jesus says to us that “the last shall be first.” The last place you might have imagined yourself looking for God’s presence, the last person to whom you’d be inclined to give any heed or hearing or deference or care, may be the first place to look, especially if God’s presence to you seems unclear or uncertain in these changing times. What would the spirit of humility actually look like?
For starters, perhaps our taking a posture of hesitation, a hesitation not to presume that we’ve got it right in the face of someone whose story, whose beliefs and values, whose language or clothing or lifestyle or deportment is different than our own, whether they be far off or near. In God’s eyes these others are surely not outcasts; they are God’s children and they may well be our teachers. A spirit humility begins with a posture of hesitation and seeks to listen to and learn from and reverence the other.
If you find yourself being quick to judge, prone to be rather hot-tempered, consistently finding yourself surrounded by people who are inadequate or clueless or slow or boring or just plain poor examples of what you think a person should be or how they should operate, you may be at least half-way there in learning about the grace of hesitation. I think we can learn well from those circumstances where we are not prone to be hesitant at all. Your proclivity to be quick and condemning may be like a Pavlovian bell ringing in your soul. Pray for the grace of awareness, when you find yourself being summarily dismissive or condemning or distancing. In those occasions pray for the grace of awareness, awareness about yourself. What has this occasion awakened in you that requires you to be superior or dismissive or condemning or grateful that you are not like this other person? I think we can most learn the grace of hesitation, of waiting on or waiting for another, by using the experiences of life where we are most un hesitant. Pray for the grace of awareness, which will often proffer the grace of hesitation… because there’s always more going on than what immediately meets the eye.
I am very much drawn to the old monk’s story of life being a deep well. It will take more than a lifetime, it will take eternity to quench our thirst for God’s light and life and love. We can only bear so much truth at a time and, from my experience, I think that many of us also need God’s grace to un learn what is not true or what is no longer true to us. We will need the space of perspective to see it and the grace of humility to bear it. T. S. Eliot, who prayed here in this monastery many decades ago, heard himself say:
“I said to my soul be still, and let the darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God…
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is a way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not
And what you do not know is the only thing you know.” [x]
The grace of humility; the practice of hesitation.
[i] The source of this story is unknown.
[ii] Titus 2:8.
[iii] Luke 14:11; Matthew 23:12.
[iv] Zechariah 9:9.
[v] See Mark 10:15f. See also Mark 12:38f, Luke 1:48, Luke 14:11.
[vi] Luke 18:9-14.
[vii] Matthew 11:28-30.
[viii] John 15: 12-14.
[ix] Diana L. Eck in Encountering God ( Boston : Beacon Books), p. 202
[x] T. S. Eliot in The Four Quartets: East Coker (28).
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