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Thursday, 1 October 2015

The mystery of humility

“The mystery is this – the more you go beyond yourself, the more you will become your true self; the more you lose yourself in loving and serving others, the more you will find yourself; the more you keep company with those who suffer, the more you will be healed.

This is the knowledge which passes all understanding. This is certain and has been proved experimentally in the life of all the saints.”

Those words were spoken by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, at the thanksgiving service for the life of Princess Diana but they could have been written for our gospel reading (Luke 1. 1 - 11) today.

Jesus noted our tendency to put ourselves first, wanting the best places, making our claim to be the most important. He saw it in guests at a wedding. We see it every time we try to board a bus or a tube train. We tend to think that a decrease in politeness and civility is something that applies only to our own day and time but Jesus saw it in his community as well. Vying for position and honour is a consistent human trait in all of us and one of which we need to repent.

Jesus deals with the issue very pragmatically. He says to those wanting the best seats that they are likely to come a cropper because someone more important than them may arrive and then they’ll have the embarrassment of having to stand down. It would be much better for your self esteem, he says, if you were to take the lowest seat and then have the honour of being invited up. So, Jesus pragmatically commends humility to these people by appealing to their self interest.

But the point that he is making is that humility is the only way to true greatness. Richard Chartres explains why we are only truly great when we are truly humble. It is because going beyond ourselves, losing ourselves in service of others is actually the way in which we find ourselves and really come to know ourselves as we really are.

Those who are continually pushing themselves forward, wanting to be first, needing to be honoured are those who do not feel confident in themselves. Their lack of self-confidence and self-knowledge means that they are forever needing the praise of others. Those who know themselves do not need that kind of recognition and so can be in the background quietly serving others because they know themselves and have found out who they truly are.

Much of what we do Jesus says is for payment, even when no money changes hands. We invite friends or relatives or wealthy neighbours knowing that they will pay us back by inviting us back. That is not true humility, Jesus says. True humility does not expect payment or recompense. When we are truly humble then we will invite those who cannot repay us in kind; those who are suffering. Richard Chartres says that, just as we find ourselves by losing ourselves, by keeping company with those who are suffering we ourselves find healing.

To put ourselves first reveals our underlying insecurity and does nothing to fill the need we have for recognition. So many of us live life this way and are profoundly dissatisfied as a result. The mystery is though that those who humble themselves will be made great, those who go beyond themselves will become themselves, those who lose themselves in loving and serving others will find themselves, those who bless and keep company with the suffering are themselves healed.

What Jesus and the Bishop are talking about is profoundly counter-cultural, it goes against the grain of our lives and our society, but it is the way that God designed human life to be and our frantic lives only truly rest when they find their rest in him.


John Tavener - Song For Athene.

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