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.
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”