Humble Pie

Humility is a spiritual quality for which I have never prayed! As a woman I often felt that it was something thrust on me, in the Church and in the world; it was something that someone else thought I ought to have, and I resisted that notion. Then culturally, the caricatures of the meek or the humble were never attractive either–doormat, milquetoast, mouse—none of them inspired me to do what I was made and called to do, or to dream dreams and imagine visions. But in this season of my life, I am wondering if humility might indeed be the gift or charism which could lead me to the most open heart for the Spirit, the quality ascribed to Jesus, that will be the most life-giving and life-saving for all the rest of my days.

It is an incontrovertible truth that I am not now what I have been in the past, nor am I what I am going to be. Daily I run into my lack of memory for certain parts of names or my lack of agility in rising and falling on the chair. What I observe bitter-sweetly  is that the roles and functions I was called to fill in an earlier time, are now being filled by others–younger, fresher, more cutting–edge, as they say. And if I am ruthlessly honest, I know that there are things that I never have excelled in or was even suited for. So what does humility mean? It certainly can’t mean pretending not to be good at something at which I am gifted. Nor does the model of self-flagellation and mortification of saints of earlier ages seem to be something that produces life and growth. So I continue to look for incarnated definition. Pope Francis is capturing the attention of the world and the Church by the way he seems to be open and accessible to all people, no matter how broken and unimportant. I am so grateful for someone who is putting a face on Christianity that is closer to our aspirations than so many public religious leaders have done in contemporary times. But I know he is human, and if no other flaws of character and behavior show themselves, he will still show his frailty age and as he moves toward the arms of Sister Death.

So where to look and listen? This week someone in passing told me that humility was really just knowing who you are, what your capacity is, as if it were a cup, and making sure that you are using a full cup each day, not less than you have, nor more than you have. I reached back into my memory of the J. B. Phillips version of Roman 12: 3:

Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the gift of faith that God has given you.

So to be humble is to be sane about who I really am, and to let go of entitlements, projections and fantasies just the way that we read that Jesus did in Philippians 2. And on the day by day peregrinations in which I walk, it means to assess rationally what I am able to do–in my body, soul and mind. Then listen for the Spirit call: is this the time to step up and speak, or is this a time to sit quietly and let others lead the way? is this the person alongside whom I should come to offer assistance, or is this the time to wait until asked? is this the idea that I cherish that I must bang the drum for, or is it one that I can breathe life into by prayer, encouragement, affirming others?  In my milieu where doing what makes one’s self  happy is the ultimate value in one’s life, I am being called to the elasticity of humility, that allows me to stretch out in service to help and proclaim and love, and at the same time be willing to contract and and to serve as I sit still, be quiet, and be loved by the Holy One.

Deep thoughts for my daily walk this season!

 

About Elizabeth Nordquist

Elizabeth Nordquist is a Presbyterian pastor, teacher, and spiritual director who writes on women's issues, spirituality and Scripture, and what is happening in the world--hers, her neighborhood, the Church and the world. Each day she looks for ways in which the Spirit is moving in and around her.

  • Rev. Constance McIntosh

    This is just what I need to read tonight. How eloquently and thoughtfully written, dear Elizabeth. I struggle with how humility might manifest in me, in my life and ministry. I, too, have considered that it is different for women. Rather like, for men ‘pride’ and ‘power’ are traps to snare the soul. But for women it is ‘hiding’…placing a basket over our light…or not having the courage to push off the basket that has been plunked down upon our light. Or, in a more immediate illustration that comes to mind, single fathers are applauded as if they have turned water into wine yet the feats of surviving and nurturing that single mothers accomplish every day are invisible, hardly receiving praise. For us, ‘humility’ and ‘hiding’ would seem to be in our very chromosomal makeup and these twin sisters truly have stalked me all along my journey. BUT I resonated with your interpretation, embracing humility as being present to who I am and present to what I have to offer -or withhold- in each situation. To take that long, loving look at myself, taking the time to discern if I’m being triggered by that other woman-thing: expected to be all things to all people…and, boy, I’d better supply every need that is placed before me even if it’s not in me to fulfill. Like the penguin in Madagascar “Just smile and wave, boys. Just smile and wave,” Looking at humility as discernment, then, makes it completely different than hiding and, being true to myself, I can make humility an authentic spiritual practice for my day to day living. Cool. Thanks.


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