02 February 2008

Reflections on Humility as the Dignity of True Humanity: A Beginning

"How does a person seek union with God?" the seeker asked.
"The harder you seek," the teacher said, "the more distance you create between God and you."
"So what does one do about the distance?"
"Understand that it isn't there," the teacher said.
"Does that mean that God and I are one?" the seeker said.
"Not one. Not two."
"How is that possible?" the seeker asked.
"The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song. Not one. Not two." Taken from The Rule of Benedict, Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, OSB

Over Lent I am going to be working through the chapter of Benedict's Rule dealing with humility. Though I am doing this for myself (that is, for my own Lenten concentration or focus), I anticipate some of it will spill over onto this blog. As will become obvious I think, I believe this is one of the most misunderstood and (in those instances where this is so) potentially destructive concepts in Christian spirituality --- though often because of what has at times passed for Xtn spirituality among the "professional" religious! However, it seems to me that all the posts I have put up here in the past weeks about the dialogical reality which is the human person (or the human soul or heart!) are fundamental to a right understanding of this foundational state of being we call humility.

It also seems to me therefore, that Sister Joan Chittister's short dialogue above can serve as a summary and a touchstone for recalling the basic and covenantal nature of the human self. Without this, we cannot begin to approach a Christian conception of humility, for above all, humilty has to do with a foundational integrity and dignity which is imminently and authentically human. This integrity involves a particular kind of poverty, a brokennness and distortion, a sinfulness, yes, but the real focus of genuine humilty is not that poverty or sinfulness (eventhough these are always present as the background of our perception), but rather the rich giftedness which is their counterpart through the merciful grace of God.

Humility then is, like most Christian realities, a paradoxical one. It is paradoxical just as the human being called to and made for humility is a paradoxical reality: dialogical, "not one, not two", so to speak. We are instead, "a covenantal self." The humble person is the one embodying and living out of this covenantal relationship, identified with it, rejoicing in it, sustained in and strengthened by it --- at once poor beyond telling, a sinner, abject and pitiful, and at the same time rich beyond all measure, righteous, exalted, loved, and infinitely valued by the merciful God who forgives and heals every need. Humility is paradoxical because in spite of the fact that it implies abjection, and specific forms of "loss of self", it is above all a form of real dignity, a matter of being exalted in Christ and empowered by the Living God to attain our truest and most authentic humanity.

What I think will become clear over the next number of posts is that when we focus on the human, sinful side of things, the brokenness and distortion, the abjection, the very real loss of self or self-abnegation involved in true humility, when these become the focus and God is left outside somewhere waiting to act, to dwell within, to forgive and grace and heal us, we have destroyed the paradox and lost sight of genuine humility in the process. Humility is what happens when light SHINES in the darkness of our Selfhood; it is what is realized when the would-be-singer discovers the song right at the heart of her existence and allows it to sound in and through her --- a clear and pure paean of joy both of, and to, the mercy of God.

Humility is the song, the pedal note sounding below, and grounding every other Christian virtue, which results when one accepts and celebrates their dignity as Daughter or Son of God in Christ. It is not an achievement of ours, not the result of some teeth-gritting asceticism or straining spiritual athleticism. It is, instead, the way or state of being of one who knows that in spite of everything, every failure, every misstep or betrayal of her very self --- and her God --- she has been known and loved with an everlasting love, and ministered to with an unearnable mercy which cannot be bounded or contained.