Returning to the wilderness,
we become restorers of order, preservers.
We see the truth, recognize our true heirs,
honors our forebears and our heritage,
and give our blessings to our successors.
We embody the passing of human time,
living and dying with the human limits of grief and joy.
I remember once in high school the rector of our school came up to me and complimented me on something I had done. I, in reply, said something self-deprecating, trying to be humble, like “Oh, it really wasn’t that good, I really kind of messed up here or there…” And he got up on his toes (as was his way) and looked down at me and said “Domine, [he was also a Latin teacher; that was basically his way of saying, “Listen to me, Mister…”] the word ‘humble’ comes from the Latin word humus which means ‘the ground, the earth.’ And the ground is real, it’s just simply real. There is no need to put on false humility. Just be real, like the earth. You did a really good job.” I’ve never forgotten that, especially after a concert or a talk somewhere when folks come up and compliment me.
The excellent spiritual writer and teacher Ron Rolheiser, says we human beings suffer one of two kinds of soul sickness––either depression or inflation. Depression is when all of our energy is gone out of us––or has been beaten out of us!––or been stopped up like a manhole cover. And inflation is when we have no container for our energy, and we become a menace to ourselves and others because we act as if we were alone in the Universe with no one else’s needs mattering. Both of those extremes come from a wounded place, a poor regard for oneself and a mistrustful view of the world around us.
When we hear teachings about humility we have to keep that balance between depression and inflation in mind. We certainly can hear strong words against any kind of egocentric inflation in the Gospels when Jesus says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” but we shouldn’t’ confuse it with a kind of treacly and obsequious false humility either. There is a difference between humility and humiliation, just as there is between being humbled and being humiliated. As Nelson Mandela said, quoting Marianne Williams, “Your playing small does not serve the world.” No, we are called to just be real, to tread the path of self-knowledge and to be able to adequately assess our place in family, our community, our world, to know what our gifts are and our shortcomings, no more, no less.
I remember the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. It was a cold and very cloudy day in November, around Thanksgiving, up in northern Arizona, and when my friend and I arrived at the north rim of the canyon, drove all the way from California––and we couldn’t see a thing! We stood there freezing cold in this bitter wind for I don’t know how long hoping to catch a glimpse of something. We knew there was a big hole in front of us but beyond that, not much. Then just as we were about to leave this wind blew through and pushed the clouds away of a sudden and the sun broke through and suddenly we found ourselves wide eyed staring at this unbelievable gaping span in front of us that literally took my breath away. I was bowled over by the immensity in front of me, hardly being able to comprehend the size of it. It was somewhere between delight and terror––I guess you could call it awe. I remember feeling at the same time infinitesimally tiny and yet somehow exhilarated.
My friends and I have been reading an essay by Wendell Berry recently that reminded me of that experience. He writes about how even up until modern times, we love these rituals that involve some kind of dealing with nature––all the way from initiatory rites of passage and safaris to climbing K2 and space travel and the moonwalk. In these kinds of adventures you are forced to go out into the wilderness, or forced to be at the mercy of nature and measure yourself against Creation. And the ideal outcome of an experience like this is two-fold. First of all a sense of awe, a sense of myself as small within Creation; I see myself as a tiny member of a world that I cannot possibly comprehend or master or possess in any final sense. But at the same time, since we share in it and are a part of it, since we depend upon and are graced by all this of which we are a part, neither do we descend into any kind of despair of destructiveness. Rather this experience ought to leave us with a sense that we are participants, partakers, co-creators. We ought to be able to come back from these experiences having seen a new glimpse at the really real––and exhilarated by it. What these rituals and experiences really do is return us to the human condition, and make us realize that we embody “the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.” As Psalm 8 says, “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars how you arranged them––who are we that you should keep us in mind, mere mortals that you care for us? Yet you have made us little less than gods!” If we can hold those two things together––awe and exhilaration, our smallness and out dignity––then we are in the right place, then we are in right relationship.
I guess it all comes down to right relationship, with ourselves, with others and with God. Good self-knowledge––which the monastic tradition especially teaches is the surest path to knowledge of God––to know who we really are; so as to be able to recognize how we fit in the human family, recognizing ourselves as true heirs and, as Berry writes, honoring our forbears and our heritage, and giving our blessing to our successors. And ultimately letting the overwhelming immensity of Creation remind us that there is a God and it is not us, and that that Power behind the Universe is beyond our imaginings and definitions and desires to control.
I’ve been carrying this prayer around for years, simply known as the Prayer of John Henry Newman:
God has created me to do him some definite service; God has committed some work to me that has not been committed to another. I have my mission––I may not know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. God has not created me for naught, I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep God’s commandments and serve him in my calling. Therefore, I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am. I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him. God does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about.