Saturday, January 29, 2011

Humility and Humor

A financial analyst, who normally talks to me about money, recently opened up about his role as a parent. He used the word "humility" to describe what it was like for him to admit to his kids that he was sorry for having lost his temper.

I remembered this conversation since humility is a word not commonly heard in everyday discourse. It so happens that Christopher Jamison, in Finding Sanctuary, has a good discussion of monastic humility as a twelve-step ladder leading to perfect love in the Rule of St. Benedict.

I was intrigued to see "12-step" occur as early as the 6th century; just recently, a friend told me that the 12-step program of AA is indebted to Catholic spirituality.

That digression aside, I was more struck by the ancient words of Benedict: "We descend by exaltation and we ascend by humility." Drawing on the words of Jesus (The first shall the last and the last first), he is saying that putting ourselves first, delighting in our own desires, is not the way to climb to happiness or enlightenment. The path to perfection, rather, begins with being down to earth (humus in Latin = earth),honest, and truthful. To do your own thing and express your individuality may be seen, even in modern spiritual circles, as a great good, but putting ourselves first is never the way to peace.

Indirectly related to being humble (in etymology) is humor, an indispensable element in being grounded in everyday reality. If life is to be taken seriously, Jamison notes, humor is essential, but it must be directed at our own folly, not at life itself. "If life is deeply serious, then much of our superficial living is a joke."

This is in stark contrast to mindless living in which the pursuit of pleasure is elevated as the serious goal of life while life itself is seen as an absurd, meaningless joke.

We need not follow the Rule of St. Benedict or be a Christian in order to see the importance of the ladder of humility, to realize that the path to peace and happiness has much to do with letting go of the ego and its desires.

This is at the heart of contemplative prayer in which the individual empties himself so that God can take over. It takes wisdom, strength and discipline to say, with Christ, "Not my will but thine be done."

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