Here on the eve of the Transfiguration, my Franciscan Prayer Book (I looked ahead) directs us to Philippians 3:21. Good call, since Jesus has destined that we participate in everything He did and does. In cross-bearing, in denying self, in being agents of healing and bearers of the Good News, in being raised, in being transfigured, in being glorified. "Who (He) shall transfigure (metaschematisei) our body of humiliation into being conformed to His body of glory." Some translations say "low body" or even "vile bodies". I'll own that. I don't mean any disrespect for who I am as God's precious creation. But I do know that when I do not give up my own will for His, and instead exalt my own will, I can be downright vile. I was never averse to the 1928 BCP's confessional phrase, "miserable offenders". Ironic that I am writing about humility today in anticipation of the feast of Jesus' Transfiguration (as well as my own) because as St. Benedict teaches us, the way up to heaven is down, not up. "He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 23:12 And in being lifted up on the cross, Jesus was at once being humiliated in His body which He humbly gave over to the wicked, and also being victorious and exalted over all. That's just the way it works.
So I continue on now with my little series on the Spiritual Disciplines, likening them to the risky art of cave diving; that is, phenomenally freeing, beautiful and transformative, but "risky" because, as we could drown in a watery tomb while cave diving, the disciplines call us to die to ourselves and give up everything, thus "drowning" in God.
As I wrote in an earlier post,
"Transformation, and not just rote belief, is needed in the Christian life, because transformation is what enables us to keep perspective, truth and balance. It's one thing to "believe" a set of tenets; it is quite another to change (be transformed). Without transformation as it is understood in the classical sense, we are not aware of our selves. The untransformed self (the unyielded ego?) is easily capable of virulent misunderstanding, contention, impatience, projection (unconscious assignation of one's own hang-ups onto others), abuse, isolation, intolerance, exclusion, division--all the things we never saw Jesus do, and all the things we did see the religious authorities do, both in His time, as well as throughout history."
Transformation is required if we are to become and to act like the sacrificial and life-giving Body of Christ in the world. But it is risky. To be changed means to risk dying to self. And we don't naturally look for opportunities to die. But Jesus said this is the way it must be if we want to be His disciples.
And so on with "Humility". Philippians 2:3 says, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves." Since this is a little abstract, I find the monastics and their lifestyle helpful in understanding this. Richard Yeo, OSB, writes in The Benedictine Handbook, "The monk does not own property, does not have the free disposition of his body, and is not allowed to follow his own will: these are the three renunciations involved in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience." In this context, it is easy to see what is needed in order to be able to live like this--HUMILITY. The Benedictines, as well as the Jesuits I know, use the terms "humility" and "obedience" almost interchangeably. This is because if one is not to own anything, he is "owned" by (accountable to, given to) his community. If his poverty is to include poverty of spirit, and he is committed to his abbot and his community for life, humility is the oil of Aaron's beard, enabling unity. If stability to the community, which is made up of imperfect personalities, is to happen, the conscious letting go of the will (and ego) is the only way that this can happen.
St. Benedict devoted the entirety of the seventh chapter of his Rule to "humility". He paints a picture of humility as a ladder between heaven and earth--Jacob's ladder, if you will. "Without doubt," St. Benedict writes, "this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humilty." RB 7:7 He goes on to spell out twelve steps on this ladder, among them "Fear of God, who sees all", therefore we are forbidden to do our own will, "submitting to his superior" and to the rule ("obedience"), "quietly embracing suffering, even if in this obedience difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions prevail." "In truth", he writes, "those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord's command." RB 7:42 As I contemplate the attribute of humility in the light of the Benedictines, I have a concrete model for living and working and praying and serving in my life. My will is not what matters. It's actually freeing.
But most of us are not Monks. Fair enough. So let's talk about relationships. Marriages, partnerships, parents and children, friends, business associates. Humility is THE way to go in all of these, if we're serious about our lives. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, passes along in his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything this wonderful advice given early on by an older priest to John O'Malley, a professor at Georgetown University, when he was a novice: "First, you're not God. Second, this isn't heaven. Third, don't be an ass." Now there's some low-slung straw for this short-necked jackass! I pray God grant me the humility I need to become more like Jesus before I wear out my wife's patience, or run out of friends. As a priest, and as a husband, and now as a grandfather I am constantly being reminded that "my time is not my own". It belongs to others. As an assistant on a church staff (I have always been the vicar or the rector until now), I don't get to call the shots or set the schedule. I have given up that part of my autonomy in a concrete way. And while it is freeing in many ways, I must say it takes effort at times to remember that I am to be a humble servant, and nothing more. Because like any man, I want to be needed, respected, honored, understood, appreciated, recognized....you know, Ego stuff. And this is where contemplative and monastic practice and discipline really helps. Because they will never let you wander far from humility..
Isn't humility a wonderful lens through which to view all things? Always we ask the questions: "Is this the humble thing to do? Am I exalting myself or following God obediently in all things and through all people?" I heard Billy Graham say once that he reads the beatitudes at the beginning of each day. That is an excellent way to begin to partake of the discipline of humility. And, anyone who has tried soon understands that it is a "discipline" in every sense of the word. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in HUMILITY value others above youselves."
So on this eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration, as Jesus was transfigured in His glorious state, so shall we be transfigured by Him. And humility shall be the path He sets us on to take us there, for as He took His disciples down from the mountain to the valley of the shadow of death, here we must die as well. But that's a good thing, because to go up, we must all go down.
Next and Final Installment: "Service"