A little more than twenty years ago Philip Simmons died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: ALS – or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a young professor of English at a Chicago college, married, the father of two children. At the same time Philip Simmons was dying from the cruel ravages of ALS, he was more alive than he had ever been. [i]
He writes about learning to fall. He speaks of falling, quite literally, because of the ALS; he also writes about falling as a figure of speech. We fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love. He asks, in each of these falls, what do we fall away from? We fall from ego, we fall from our carefully-constructed identities, we fall from our reputations, from our precious selves. We fall from ambition, we fall from grasping to control… And what do we fall into? We fall into passion and compassion, into terror, into unreasoning joy. We fall into emptiness; we fall into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. Ultimately it’s a falling into grace, falling into the real presence of God.[ii] The name for this falling, the gateway into this mysterious presence of God, is humility.
In our Gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus speak of humility: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 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 all the people whom we find inadequate. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. The autumnal leaves falling from the trees compost into humus, which is essential to life.
Humility is not is not something we can create. Humility is something in which we participate. The source of humility is God, the humility of God in God’s sheer act of creating and sharing the gift of life. Jesus puts a human face to God’s humility in how Jesus lives life and how Jesus leaves life: his self-offering.[iii] Saint Augustine was asked to summarize the Christian life. Augustine responded that the first part is humility; the second part is humility; the third part is humility.[iv] Saint Thomas Aquinas named humility as “the foundation of the spiritual edifice.” St. Teresa of Avila said that the only sure test of oneness with God is growth in love and humility.[v] I’ll name three ways we may cultivate God’s gift of humility.
An obstacle to humility, which turns into an invitation for humility comes from our screw ups. In a few moments we will be invited to confess our sins, things done and left undone, said and left unsaid which we know were wrong. It’s a bit tedious. We seem to fall and fall again. We made our confessions last Sunday, too, and we resolved last Sunday that we would not fall in that hole again. Here we are today: another confession. More wrongs. New wrongs and repeat wrongs. Mostly repeats. Ours and others’. If we will remember this – our proclivity to fall down on the things we know and pledge to get right in life – we will get in touch with the grace of humility that comes from wisdom and compassion: wisdom gleaned from our own mistakes which can be such great teachers, and compassion for others who have got their own issues. We are not better than they are; we are not worse than they are; but we are very much similar to who they are and why. All of us need saving. We all need to be picked up when we fall. Fall again. Fall again and again. Our screw ups are not obstacles but rather invitations to cultivating the gift of humility.
Another invitation to humility is our mortality, living our lives on the terms with which God has given us life, which has a terminus. I remember some years ago, as I was being given some leadership responsibilities, my Jesuit spiritual director said to me, “Curtis, be very kind to people on your way up, because you will meet these same people on your way down.” Life for us is terminal, and, unless we die suddenly, the terms of life will include diminishment in many ways. Diminishments in life, over which we have little if any control, can be an unsolicited yet real invitation to humility. In our Rule of Life, we say “Week by week we are to accept every experience that requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life. Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vi] Letting go is a way of falling into very graceful freedom.
Thirdly, a recurring invitation for the cultivation of humility is through taking Jesus at his word: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[vii] This is not only true for us; it is true for other people who need their share of this blessing. What can they give, including what can they give to us? If we are prone to find our identity and security in always being the giver and someone else always the receiver, this controls and confuses the blessing: controls the channel of God’s grace at work, not only in our own lives but in others’; and confuses the reality of our being dependent creatures. We need to allow others this blessing to give, including to give to us. William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, said “The desire not to be beholden to anybody is completely unchristian.”[viii] We are people in need, all of us and all of our lives. Remembering that, practicing that will invite the gift of humility to grow.
Along the way and in the end, humility is giving up. By giving up I don’t mean despairing or admitting defeat. Quite to the contrary. I mean “giving up” in the way that we “give up” the bread and wine at the altar, what the church calls an “oblation.” We give up our lives – all that we are and all that we have – we give to God, who is the beginning of life, and the end of life, and the way of life. It’s to carry on in life with open hands, not clutching hands, praying that God consecrate the gift of life God has entrusted to us and, in the fullness of time, to welcome us into that place Jesus assures us he is preparing for us for all eternity.
Philip Simmons, the professor, husband, father whom I named at the outset, who learned to live, really live, with ALS, said, “Only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious – our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves – can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.” I am calling this being grounded in humility, which allows our heart to soar.
[i] Philip Simmons (1957-2002), Professor of English at Lake Forest College in Illinois, died ten years after his ALS diagnosis.
[ii] Learning to Fall; the Blessings of an Imperfect Life, by Philip Simmons (2003); pp. 10-12.
[iii] Philippians 2:5-8 – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
[iv] Saint Augustine of Hippo (xx-xxx): “prima humilitas, secunda humilitas, tertia humilitas.”
[v] Saint Teresa of Avila (1614-1642) in her Interior Castle.
[vi] Philip Simmons said: “Only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious – our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.” In memoriam: Philip Simmons (1957-2002); A tribute to Philip Simmons by his editor, David Reich (“UU World,” November/December 2002).
[vii] Saint Paul quoting Jesus in Acts 20:35.
[viii] William Temple (1981-1944) was Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944.
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.