Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
Humility is not a skill to be learned and mastered, but rather a quality of life to be nurtured and embraced. Our epistle lesson for today, from the Letter of James, gives us a helpful metaphor: a mirror.[iv] Remember what you see in the mirror. James writes, don’t just look at yourself, and when you go away, immediately forget what you are like. So where is this mirror in life? The mirror is in the face of others. We see ourselves in others, particularly those who get under our skin… because they belong there. We are they. What we see in other people – particularly people who affront us – are ourselves. This is who we are. They wouldn’t get to us the way they do if they didn’t already have a place in us. They are the mirror. Either that, or we are being visited by someone we will become. Do they seem too slow? Too sloppy? Too stupid? No they’re not. They’re actually emissaries visiting us, preparing the way for us. They are our mirror image not to forget. They are messengers from our future. Rather than looking upon them with distance or disdain, treat them with kindness because they are kin to us.[v] We are they. We see ourselves mirrored in others. Remember that.
The Letter of James also speaks of another practice which invites the cultivation of humility: listening. We read, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…”[vi] This instruction is increasingly countercultural. The driving force of social media is so instantaneous, so in-your-face, so clogged and blogged with reaction, and prescription, and adjudication, and so remiss on listening and hesitating. Hesitation is not to presume that we’ve immediately got it right in the face of someone whose story, whose beliefs and values, whose language, or appearance, 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 of 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, or continually surrounded by people who seem 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 humility. 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 quickly dismissive, or condemning, or distancing of someone else. 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? We can cultivate the grace of humility, of waiting on or waiting for another, by using the experiences of life where we are prone to be unhesitant. Pray for this grace of awareness, which will cultivate the grace of humility… because there’s always more going on than what immediately meets the eye.
William Butler Yeats wrote that there is “one myth” for every person which, if we knew it, would help us understand all that the person did and thought.[vii] Yeats is using the word “myth” not as a kind of fabricated story that a modern-day “spin doctor” might write, but rather “myth” in the sense of a cohering story about someone which, were we to grasp it, would not only enlighten our mind but also open our heart of mercy for this other person. What may, on first glance, seem to us a stain on them, is probably not a stain but a scar which they wear heroically. Everyone has a story. If their story is a mess, we can be sure that someone taught them this story. They didn’t make it up. If our reaction to someone is just rejection or condemnation, we probably don’t know enough about them. If we did, we would also find mercy in our hearts for them. Pray for mercy.
Back to the composting metaphor. The largest source of compost in our soul comes out of the mistakes we’ve made. Mistakes are a waste only if they’re not remembered with the wisdom that comes from hindsight and the liberation that comes with forgiveness. If your mistakes have not turned into compost in your soul, if they still stink, your mistakes just need a little more time, probably more light or aeration. The rich compost will come because there’s lots of mistakes in life. Make your mistakes your offerings to God.
Now in a few moments we will be invited to confess our sins, the mistakes we know we have made. In case any of you are new to us today, I’ll tell you we did the same thing last Sunday, and resolved last week we wouldn’t fall in that hole again. Here we are today: another confession. And word has it we have plans for the same next Sunday. Everyone out there is in the same shape. Lots of mistakes. Not everyone has recourse for forgiveness so their awareness of sin and its effects simply compounds in them like an infection. They don’t need our help to damn them; they need help to be saved. We participate in Jesus’ saving work by mirroring Jesus’ light, and life, and love onto them. Pray for them.
Humility does not get much press, but it’s a grace that shows such promise. You are surrounded by people who are mirrors to you. Hesitate to listen to and learn from them. Where there’s mistakes – your own and others – bring those mistakes into God’s light, and life, and love. God is very frugal, and those mistakes, composted, will be like gold.
[ii]See Mark 10:15f. See also Mark 12:38f, Luke 1:48, Luke 14:11.
[v]The English words “kind” and “kin” come from the same etymological root.
[vii]William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the great Irish poet.
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