Humility Against Despair: Pentecost 20: Matthew 22:34-48
Thomas Merton in “Seeds of Contemplation” entitles one of his chapters Humility Against Despair. When I first read it to a group of inner city clergy many years ago, it was as if water were spilled out to travelers across a desert. They wondered at the suffering around them and the love they carried for those battered by life and the institutions that sometimes destroyed those unable to overcome their oppression. They longed to hear that humility or anything was a bridge against despair, their own and those around them. My mind has changed since those days, because there was some deep love in the midst of the suffering that somehow redeemed all the effort and tears. Yet this quote from Merton still holds a deep resonance for me.
“Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man (or woman) deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.
In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.
Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that God is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.
But the man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.” * New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, New
Directions Paperback, first published 1961. Pgs. 180-190.
I first read the original paperback in 1961 on a bus from Lenox, MA to Boston. The book was a perfect liberation at the time from a depression that had moved into my bones. Along with Ferlinghetti’s; A Coney Island of the Mind, and the one line: I am waiting for a rebirth of Wonder; it was a breakthrough in my journey into the divine. And yet, as we look back, his words did not explain how the brain can work to help cause depression and a kind of despair unto death. Merton if he were alive today would probably counsel a course of medications to adjust the chemistry in the brain.
Maybe humility is moving from our persistent need to control, to its loss that throws us into the arms of the divine or into the pit of despair. Maybe it’s when we can either turn away from the face of Jesus, or turn toward it and look into his eyes, that the moment arrives when we become humble. Humility is not something we do, it’s our response to God moving in the midst of the love and suffering. I don’t do humility. Humility is showered as the rain on me when I am able to let go of my numbing ideas and beliefs, when my expectations are re-arranged, when I gaze into the abyss and see the face of my beloved reaching out to me with arms of love. And when a friend comes and reaches out and lifts me up.
My old guide and friend Mark Dyer* has been in hospice for a week now. Mark and his wife Marie Elizabeth were such guides for me when our son, Christopher was born with Down syndrome. The day after his birth it seemed as if a great weight was pressed on my heart and lungs. Because all my old childhood theologies of punishment and retribution still seemed like the water we drank in New England and especially Boston at the time, I asked Mark, “Why would God let a child be born with such a disability in life?” Mark’s responded, “I don’t believe in a God who causes a child to be born with a disability, I believe in a God who reaches down to us with arms of love.”
I think I’ve told Mark that that idea changed my relationship with my son and my ministry. It’s amazing how Mark’s simple phrase turned me around. I think anyone who suffers or has ones world turned around, may become more open to their own lack of resources and the need to fall back into the arms of God or to turn away. I suspect that falling back in trust is what humility is. At that moment it’s all God, all the holy and sacred love of the divine in and through and above and below. It’s God all the way.
Humility is to begin to laugh at the tricks the mind and body can play as we try to self-medicate our selves and souls out of our terrifying sense of meaninglessness as if we were the ones who had a hold on ultimate meaning, as if we could manipulate it and shake it to reveal its answer.
Ultimately as we work away from any sense of pride of position, of parenthood, of honor, and stand before the mirror unclothed and begin to see our poor and lovely bodies as the divine gift they are, to see ourselves as the beloved of God, with eyes of forgiveness and mercy, we will discover the joy of humility. Without humility there is no joy. With humility joy surprises us with its endless on-going.
So dear ones, you are the blessed children of God, beloved beyond all reasoning for who you are in all your wondering humility. Let yourself this day fall into the arms of the Divine One. There you shall find your strength and your joy. There you will find yourself looking at God and God looking back at you with eyes of true unconditional love. And live with humility the precious days you have been given so that your life will be a blessing.
*The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer is a former Roman Catholic monk who became a priest and then a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. He and Marie Elizabeth married and adopted a son, Matthew, who they discovered had severe special needs. Because of their experience with Matthew, I asked them to come to the hospital to counsel us and how we need to look at this new birth. I gave Christopher the middle name of Mark as a reminder of that important moment in our lives. You may read the story about Chris on my blog: Stories From A Priestly Life at wordpress.com. The story is entitled: Looking for A Place to Call Home
I am beguiled by the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault on Wisdom and the Trinity. She uses the image of the Trinity as a water wheel that flows and spills over into each other: The Father, to Son, The Son to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit out of this flow, creates a new thing.
Meister Eckhart says do you want to know what the Trinity is:” The Father laughs and creates the Son, the Son laughs and creates the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit laughs and creates us.” Out of the three a new and creative fourth comes into being.
To Love God, love neighbor and to love yourself are another triad. It is a perfect triad of compassion, love flowing and spilling over from one full heart to the other, in the beginning flowing from within the water wheel trinity from self to the neighbor to God and back again in various constellations.
So since this summary of the law is common to most religions, what has happened that we are in conflict with each other? From a threefold understanding of the whole foundation of the law it makes absolutely no sense that there should be hate and misunderstanding. Instead there should be a flow of conversation, listening, exploration into the present reality, a heart opening seeking of solutions to all that separates from each other, from ourselves and from God. The longest or the shortest journey to be travelled is the eighteen inches between the head and the heart. It seems to me the goal is to shorten the trip.
At least for Jews, Christians and Muslims and I suspect for other Eastern religions, we are like the three or four blind men who try to describe an elephant by one touching the trunk, the other the tusk, the other the leg, another the tail. We alone, without connection to this trinity of compassion can’t see the whole picture. And the whole picture at root is love. From this love and really, I think, only from this love and compassion and mercy, can there ever be any solution to the divisions that haunt our days and dreams.
We don’t get it that God is love, not just for me, but for all of us, all living things and even the rocks cry out that there is life here, treasure to be discovered. Sometimes we take ourselves and our little minds much too seriously. As Richard Rohr remarks in his book The Naked Now, when “Jesus said, ‘I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6). I think the intended effect of that often misused line is this: If Jesus is the Truth, then you probably aren’t.”
For now and maybe for always, I’m trying to let my being right give way to the flow of creative love and compassion. Don’t know why I’ve waited so long to live fully and non-defensively into this truth. Blessings to you all and to all beings.
(Friends, these meditations and stories are based on the readings for the Sundays of the Church Year. The reading this week is Matthew 22:15-22, You can find the readings under http://www.episcopalchurch/Lectionary,calendar. You’ll want the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and you’ll find there also many wonders and inspirations that connect us with the communion of saints)
Taxes and God
There was a time when Episcopal Clergy were held hostage by parsimonious parishes. Men, in those days, who had spent most of their professional lives in marginal parishes, on retirement, were sometimes left as paupers. About thirty years ago the Clergy organized and offered a salary scale for clergy and later, administrative assistants and others who worked for the church, based on years of service. The parishes also were required to pay into the pension fund, the very model for our current Social Security system, and cover health insurance.
When I went to New Jersey to work with Urban Churches, a sizeable portion of the Diocesan Budget was set aside to support full time clergy and their families. The presence of the church in the inner cities such as Camden, Elizabeth, Trenton and Atlantic City was and remains a beacon of hope in houses of desperation. To keep enough of that money in the budget became my primary goal. A few years into the 8 years I worked as the Urban Coordinator for the Diocese, the Diocesan Council came with requests to cut our budgets by 15%. I refused. I gave in to a 5% cut but except for my salary and a secretary, the rest of the funding went straight to urban congregations. I was thrown into a fury of grant proposals to cities, the national church and foundations. In this way we were able to support the clergy and their families and to “plug the hole in the dike.” Indeed, some of the clergy and parishes from outside the city were our most ardent supporters. Each year, however, the request from the Diocesan Council to cut our budgets increased. By the end of the eight years the only place to cut was my salary. I was now looking for a new job at 50 years of age. If the work at the Diocesan House had not been stressful enough, the wait to find a new call was more intense. That call came two months before I was to leave my position. I was to become the interim rector at the Cathedral in Philadelphia. Here, a sigh of relief.
Archbishop William Temple of Canterbury said during his tenure, something akin to this: “The church is the only institution whose purpose is to give its life away for others.” So we clergy are caught in a paradox: to insist on protection for our families and to live our lives totally into the divine. To live in this place is the beginning of wisdom. It is in the tension between money and taxes and the sacred that true faith is lived in action. I wish I knew that when hot disputes arose during budget discussions. Often crumbling infrastructure drained resources from our mission. And yet the buildings, in some neighborhoods, were the sacramental signs of the presence of the church amidst the ruins. Now as I look back, I see that the more we lived into God, the more we gave to the holy, honored the sacred; blessings were showered on our families and communities. As we struggle with church budgets year after year, maybe it was a blessing to be surrounded with cares and disputes that compromised our mission. At least we had a mission; I had taken the words from evening prayer as a kind of slogan for the urban department: “So that the hope of the poor will not be taken away.” At least we had and have the reminder to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” To live into the paradox of living in the world and still being attuned to the sounds of the holy is what my priest, Max, used to quote when I was a young teen: “To be in the world and not of the world.”
And so each year around this time we live into the paradox. It is the churches eternal reminder to be still, alert and creative in the work of budgets and lest we forget our purpose and lose our edge, to trust God. The calling we have been given, that has been laid on us, is about the discovery of the holy in the midst of contentious and ordinary times. Don’t, dear ones, let your faith be worn down. Keep your eye on the heart of God. And perhaps when you look back some day, you will find the blessings and teachings that were given to you.
Thomas Merton wrote in “Seeds of Contemplation” that God created humans so there would be a partner in the dance, one to participate in the ongoing act of creation, imagination, a movement around and under and through, a spilling over in a constant flow of energy. Okay, a lot of this is my own interpretation and it probably applies to the story in Matthew 22: 1-14 of the Wedding Feast.
We are the ones invited to the dance. Too busy and pre-occupied we refuse the first invitation.
A second invitation is sent (this time by the prophets) and in our refusal and anger at the reminder, we kill the messengers, or ridicule or imprison or drive them out. We don’t want to be reminded about who we are: dancers engaged with the creation in a sacred movement.
Finally the invitation is sent to everyone else: the people are gathered from the street, from the highway underpass, from humble plywood shelters built on the side of the hills outside the city. And they come. All the little ones are invited to the dance. And they come. The marriage feast must have taken place, the king’s son is married and there is joy and dancing, light and music, food enough for all. I like that ending. I want to be a part of that group that accepted the invitation to the dance.
Then who is this miserable last one without a wedding garment. What part of you and me still holds back, still does not want to be dressed in beauty before the divine energy? What part of us is still sitting on the sidelines?
Yet God isn’t the king in the story. God still has the last word. And yet aren’t there parts of us that are still holding back. God says, “D’ya wanna Dance?” Don’t worry if you know the steps, you can make them up. Your whole beautiful and painful life is a divine movement. “Come dance with me. We can jump and swirl…
or we can slow dance the night away.”