From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Abba Xanthias said, “A dog is better than I am because a dog also has love but, unlike I myself, the dog does not pass judgment.”
Abba Sarmatas said: “I prefer a person who has sinned if he knows that he sinned and has repented, over a person who has not sinned and considers himself to be righteous.”
umility and contemplation are the invisible twins of the spiritual life. One without the other is impossible. In the first place, there is no such thing as a contemplative life without the humility that takes us beyond the myth of our own grandeur to the cosmic grandeur of God. In the second, once we really know the grandeur of God we get the rest of life – ourselves included – in perspective. Reaching the moon told us how really insignificant we were in the universe. We begin to rethink all our dearly held notions of human consequence. Humility leads directly to contemplation.
Humility enables me to stand before the world in awe, to receive its gifts and to learn from its lessons. But to be humble is not to be diminished. Indeed, humility and humiliations are not the same thing. Humiliations degrade me as a human being. Humility is the ability to recognize my right place in the universe, both dust and glory. God’s glory, indeed, but dust nevertheless.
The Rule of Benedict reminds the monastic to pray with the psalmist, “I am a worm and not even human.” What may sound to a me-centered generation like the destruction of human dignity is, in fact, its liberating truth. I am not, in other words, everything I could be. I am not even the fullness of myself, let alone a pinnacle for which my family, my friends, my world, the universe should strive. I am only me. I am weak often, struggling always, arrogant sometimes, hiding from myself most of the time, and always in some kind of need. I cover my limitations with flourish, of course, but down deep, where the soul is forced to confront itself, I know who I really am and what, on the other hand, however fine the image, I really am not. Then, the Rule of Benedict says, we are ready for union with God.
It is not when we become perfect – the whole idea of which becomes ever more suspect in a daily expanding universe – that we can claim God. It is when we accept the callow material that is ourselves that we can come to see beyond ourselves. It is when we cease to be our own god that God can break in.
The Rule of Benedict lays out the four dimensions of humility that lead to contemplation. The first calls us simply to recognize the presence of God in our lives. God, the Rule says quite clearly, simply is. God is with us whether we recognize that presence, that power, or not. God is not bought or gained or won or achieved. God is the ground of life. The point is not that we arrive at God; the point is that we cannot remove ourselves from God. We can only ignore the impact and the meaning of God’s presence within us. “O God, come to my assistance,” we say at the beginning of every prayer period of the day in my community. Even the desire to pray, we acknowledge, comes from the God within us.
The second level of humility requires us to accept the gifts of others, their Godself, their wisdom, their experience, even their direction. By revealing our inmost selves to someone else, we recognize the presence of God in others, yes, but we also free ourselves from the masks we wear and the lies which, in the end, are likely to fool even ourselves about us. For a woman it is the ability to realize that she is not nothing. For a man, it is the grace to understand that he is not everything. Open to the gifts of others and the truth of the self, we can see God where God is.
The third stage of humility requires us to let go of false expectations in daily life. When I am truly aware of my own littleness, I am not driven to spend life satisfying my ego more than my needs. I do not harbor the delusions of grandeur that compel a person to require the best car, the best chair, the best piece of meat on the plate, whatever the effect on others. The person full of God has much more security than any of the baubles of life – the comforts, the trappings, the titles, the symbols – can give.
The fourth level of humility reminds me to receive others kindly. Knowing my own limitations, I can accept theirs. Then I can walk through the world quietly, without bluster, without calling attention to myself and concentrated on the God within.
Finally, realistic about the self, the mind is free to become full of God.
To be a contemplative it is necessary every day to remember the God within. The posture is a crucial one. Only then can we empty ourselves of the need to play God that day, with anyone, in any way.