The Unexalted Place for Humility – Br. Curtis Almquist
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
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.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.
I was not expecting to receive a sermon today because it is Sunday. This was such a treat. Thank you Br. Curtis and all the Brothers. I have just returned from Boston and had the opportunity to get my “fix” while there, but as I mentioned on the way out to Br. Jonathan, it is very hard to carry the message outside your doors. Society can swallow you up. Thank you for your work and for your presence when I need a “fix”. The world needs the Brothers of SSJE.
Very profound, Br. Curtis Thanks for this wisdom about humility:
“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.”
Everything you say, Br. Curtis, is always full of insight, compassion and humor, an irresistible gift. As a fellow Swede, I know exactly what you’re talking about in the ‘judgment’ line – my husband used to say ‘you can always tell a Swede, but you can’t tell them much’. Thank you, thank you, for always ‘telling me much’ about the Christian life. I am blessed by living in a diocese whose bishop never wears ‘Roman’ purple, only plain clerical black, and signs his messages, ‘your servant and bishop’; and to have a parish where humility is a much-prized, and enjoyed, commodity. I give thanks for both – and for you and your brothers – every day.
Today I join the many devotees of “Brother, Give Us a Word” in expressing my gratitude because a Brother’s homily was “exactly what I needed to hear today!” So thank you, Brother Curtis, for providing a road map for me as I recover from a serious injury that was due, in large part, to my lack of humility.
The metaphor of the mirror says volumes to me.
Also is it possible that humor also relates to humus and humility?
I have had much to process from this sermon the last two days.
Oh how grateful I am dear Brother Curtis, for having you “talk” to me when I can’t sleep during these troubled times. How I miss you and all of the brothers…..and Eucharist……I almost want the recipe for the bread; how much I/we miss that. I don’t know what I would do if I could not listen to the sermons online….it helps me so much.
I love and miss you.
Until we meet again, may God Bless you and keep you safe.
Brother Curtis, I have been getting a better handle on humility. Your sermon, with the metaphor of composting and the reminder that others are our mirrors, is going to help me greatly. Thank you.
Dear Br. Curtis,
Thank you so much for your beautiful meditative work and wisdom.
I am a passionate gardener, therefore I love your metaphor.
Hope my mistakes do not stink so badly! Better I keep taking a good care of my personal compost!
God bless you and all the brothers.
Where to start…oh I know, with my judgemental, hasty, haughty, impatient, imperious self!! Thank you Br Curtis. I think I need a lot more light and aeration!! Beautifully, and kindly written. Elizabeth Hardy+
Amen. Your statement regarding humility particularly. I had a brother (he died some years ago). But when we were growing up he was my playmate. Of course, we had our petty fights. My mother was the on spot person do deal with that behavior. But, depending on what we did, there were the times when she would say, go to your room and stay there until your father get’s home. Ufda as the Norwegians would say. Now we were in real trouble. When it was close to the time my dad came home, she would let us out of our rooms to sit in a chair in the kitchen where my dad would see us. He was a loving father, and the look on his face was not happy. Long story story, but part of what my brother had done – I told him while we were playing, You better not do that or you’re going to get in trouble. Well, he went ahead and did it any way. So my Dad comes home, sees my brother waiting for him, and sends him to his room, and gives him a spanking. Smarty Pants me I said (not nicely), I told you so, I told you so. My Dad took one look at me and said, “GO TO YOUR ROOM”. Well, I was next in line. And I so deserved it. So much for being a smarty pants. But that memory actually made me laugh (at myself). So Thanks for the laugh. In these days, laughs are to be treasured.
Thank you Br. Curtis. This is a wonderful message. Just what I need today. God bless you.
I am an AME elder and licensed psychologist.
This meditation should be read by every clergy and person who ministers to others. It is so rich in crucial wisdom that it must be read more than once.
Thank you so much for sharing in a way that can be life enhancing for everyone who reads it
Brother Curtis, you are filed with wisdom thanks for this revelation
Thank you, Br. Curtis. “Pray for mercy.” This is often the ONLY thing I can do.
This is a really helpful sermon. Thank you and God bless.
This sermon remind me of something I need to do better.
Such a wonderful way to start the morning, hearing Brother Curtis’s kind words of mercy. Thank you for the option to listen to the sermon as well as read it.
I had the joy of hearing this in person last week, always a gift when brother Curtis speaks, and he embodies humility – and kindness.