Yield and overcome;
bend and be straight;
empty and be full;
wear out and be new;
have little and gain;
have much and be confused.
Tao te Ching #22
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
Those who humble themselves will be exalted.
(reflections on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector Lk 18:9-14)
I must admit to you that my idea about this story came from a high school student, something which neither the kid’s teacher (who passed it on to me) nor I had ever noticed before. The story says that the “Pharisee spoke this prayer to himself.” He spoke the prayer to himself. He was praying to himself, he wasn’t praying to God.
There is a beautiful passage from a book called The Wound of Love by an anonymous Carthusian monk that I have carried around for years. He wrote that in one sense only the atheist can truly believe in God; meaning, he thought that for all of us God has to die at a certain moment. And then he goes on to list the God that must die:
the God who stands alongside the cosmos as some ‘thing’ else,
the God who stands alongside my neighbor as someone else;
the God of whom it suffices to know the general moral rules
in order to do his will;
the God infinitely above creatures' pains
in a transcendence beyond reach;
the God-judge, who punishes in accord with
a justice conceived along human lines;
the God who blocks the spontaneity of life and love.
But the one that sticks in my craw is this: he says that the God of our imagination must die too, the God of our projections and desires must die because that God is quite often nothing other than our own ego deified. And that is this man––he was saying this prayer to himself, saying this prayer to his own Ego projected onto a large screen.
It baffles me how often people have a religious conversion experience and suddenly become belligerent and confident and cocksure of how the Universe operates and exactly how every one in it is supposed to behave, and who’s in and who’s out. There is another reaction people have when they come face to face with the divine, an inner movement more similar to the monks of the desert or St Francis of Assisi, that is something akin to the experience of love, when we love someone or when someone loves us, when we experience the outpouring of pure gratuitous unconditional love. At times being love doesn’t make us feel good at all, but instead makes us see ourselves with all our warts and imperfections. As St John of the Cross teaches, God’s light is so bright it is like darkness to us. Like turning the light on in an otherwise dark room¬––¬suddenly all the dusty dark corners are lit up. We know who we are, we know where we have come from, we know the hardness of our own hearts, our petty gripes and compulsions. Perhaps for a moment we might even think we are unworthy of the love, we might think, “If you really knew me, would you still love me?” That experience in turn can lead two different reactions. We could run from it. “Oh please, don’t look at me anymore, turn the light off, don’t make me reveal anything else about myself,” and we can hide back in our little comfortable nest of self-protection, behind our mask. Or we can do what this tax collector does––we can recognize, acknowledge, and mourn what we have become. Of course we hopefully don’t stop there either. That mourning hopefully leads to repentance, conversion, “turning around,” getting on to the road that leads to us becoming who we are meant to be.
The eyes of love do not lie; they challenge, but they do not lie. These are God’s eyes, eyes that weep for us, that long for us, that pull us forward to participate in the Divine nature. They are mirrors, show us exactly who we are, in all our fragile beauty and in all our beautiful fragility. And that is what humility really is––truth, reality. We don’t have to trump anything else up to be humble, what we call “false humility.” Just knowing who we are and who we could be, who we are and who we could have been, is enough to humble us and can be that which spurs us forward.
But this is also a great place to be, this initial moment of mourning, so let’s not dart off too soon. It’s the moment we get to at each Eucharist when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Because this is the moment when we are like Jesus, who emptied himself. Where would Jesus be in this story? Jesus would be there in the back row with the tax collector, not deeming equality with God something to be grasped at.
So like Jesus, we empty ourselves. First of all we empty ourselves of our projections and our desires, our plans and agendas, our ego deified. Don’t worry: as soon as we are that empty, God fills us again. As soon as we say, “I am not worthy,” God and those who really love us say, “Yes, you are. When will you come to see you like I do, and know you like I do, and love you like I do?” As the Carthusian monk continued, when that other God dies,
it makes room for a God who is
totally beyond our grasp
and nevertheless strangely close to us and familiar;
when that God dies, it makes room for a God
who bears a human face––that of Jesus, my brother;
when that other God dies, it makes “room for a God who is love
in a way that defies all our human notions of justice;
a God who is generosity, overflowing life,
gratuitousness, unpredictable liberty…”
Perhaps all of our theological speculation, not to mention our inter-religious dialogue, needs to be based on this kind of humility too, recognizing the ineffable mystery of who God really is. It’s not that we don’t know God at all, but I think we know God more by the little things than the big ones. We especially know God in the breaking of the bread which is not just the sacred elements but everywhere the Incarnation happens, especially, as John’s Gospel shows us, in service––when we wash each other’s feet and lay our lives down for one another, whenever two or three are gathered, and whenever equality and inclusivity triumph over hierarchy and exclusion, when mercy triumphs over our petty systems of justice, all of which the breaking of the bread is meant to symbolize. We know God when we are like God for each other, and “love in a way that defies all our human notions of justice, generosity, overflowing life, gratuitousness, unpredictable liberty…”