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