I didn’t look at the readings for the week. Instead I wrote about an issue which has been cropping up in my prayer life and the reading I am doing to try to make better sense of my own vocation. It is so time consuming to wrestle with readings while also doing other spiritual work, real-life work, parenting, study, etc. I will continue to try to “preach” properly but I felt that God wants me to really grapple with the problematic idea of humility. Here is an imperfect beginning…
I have long been enamoured with Micah 6:8, where we are told that the only thing we have that can please God is justice, loving-kindness (hesed) and walking humbly with our God. For me I focus on them in the order they are given- I am passionate and full of rants when it comes to justice, I seek to be full of a sincere and tender kindness particularly in the face of anyone who is less powerful than me or vulnerable (which considering most days I feel like a fire-breathing dragon could be anybody) and then….well usually I try to mumble over the third one and let it take care of itself.
Because humility and me have a long and problematic history.
I was raised to be “humble” to self-abase and to self-mortify. Every time I recognised anything good about myself I was (for the sake of my own soul I am sure) warned about the “sin of pride” and the necessity of humility, modesty, obedience, subservience. The problem was the way these things were conflated with femininity and embodied femaleness (my father was certainly not very humble, neither were the priests who preached this). The problem was that this view of great female role-models (such as Mary and all the virgin martyrs) was quite objectifying of females and also trivialised the value of words, actions, leadership when clearly God has called me to preaching, teaching and leadership. My real and God-given (I believe) vocation was constantly at war with this sort of “holy” modest model of proper femininity.
The problem was that no one noticed the symptoms of self-hate, depression, anxiety, toxic underconfidence, anorexia, dysphoria until these habits of thought and action were deeply ingrained and even then did not make the connection between the continuing call to be “humble” to “weep with loathing” over my own shortcomings.
So I broke away from that sort of humility. It was killing me. It was preventing me from God, from even my own self, from relationship with anything or anybody. So I came to hate the very concept of “humility” when I noticed the men who talk about it so very much and maybe practice it in male contexts have a very different unhumble way of relating to women and children (and othered men). When I noticed that women allow and welcome all sorts of abuse from men on the basis of proper submission, humility, modesty.
I had some choice swear words about the huge con that has been pulled by the privileged (white people, males, heterosexuals, the wealthy) over the humble doormats they craft out of anyone and everyone else. I stopped constantly apologising to God for existing and I spent a couple of decades yelling at God furiously about how unfair it all was. “I know” said God tiredly, “I know”. “Humbly fiddlesticks” I snapped, “I’ll walk with you as I am, a hyena in a petticoat, a fire-breathing dragon. I am what you made me I will not shrink down into this fragile petal of submissive humility” God chuckled, “I knew it” she crowed as if this was just what she had been watching for. So that was that. Me and humility were done, we had nothing further to do with each other.
As I grew in this new sense of self, there kept being surprises. I was actually sometimes good at stuff. Sometimes I was naturally good and more often I could gain skills through hard work and confidence. Slowly, tentatively I began to sometimes feel confident and make surprising discoveries about myself. “I knew it!” God always smiled and laughed whenever I achieved, whenever I was celebrated, whenever I didn’t sink back into the mud of self-hate. “Well why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. God just looked me in the eye with that sarcastic look that she gets when I am being unreasonable. How on earth would I know what God was telling me? I hadn’t really learned to listen. My “humble” self-talk took over any sort of listening to anything, to creation, to the heartbeat of the universe, to my own heart. Where would God speak to me if not in those things? I had dreams…vivid God-filled dreams but I used my patriarchal “objective” self-effacing knowledge to erase and trivialise what the dreams told me.
When the dreams told me that God loved me then I added “even though I am so unworthy and unimportant” to my interpretation, even when the dreams told me God was calling me I added “but I am a sinner so I will fail to reply” and cried self-loathing about being too weak and pathetic to reply, but didn’t consider that God would not set me up for failure in that way. I hated my femaleness, my weakness, my lack of certainty, my desires, my exhaustion, me emotional neediness. God gave me a dream to radical love and faithfulness an offer of partnership with others and with God and I forced an interpretation overlaying what was there.
In the dream God claimed me and called me and carried me, I awoke and sternly rebuked myself not to begin to expect this sort of treatment from God, not to think I was “special” for having dreams, to realise that while God loved me and didn’t want me to kill myself it was not given to me to have God always whenever my desires dictate it. And that of course was partly true, because in fact I do not own or control God and God doesn’t come to comfort me on demand (or by my manipulation). But it was also untrue. When God gave herself to me in scripture, in sacraments, in creation and in human relationships she actually meant it. THERE ARE NO ONE-NIGHT STANDS WITH GOD.
So then I retreated from God to give her space, and to not be this clingy human needy person that I still secretly hated myself for being and that actually in a way was the opposite of humility. It’s not humble to hate yourself for being “only human”. We are human and God is fully aware and accepting of this. God loves me, the human. God unconditionally, committedly, faithfully and possibly sometimes exasperatedly loves and desires me. Humility is not the denial of the beauty and specialness that I have in God’s eyes. Humility is accepting that as precious, being grateful and responsive to it and also recognising that God has an equally deep and true love for other humans and in fact for all creation.
I am reading Mysticism and Prophecy by Richard Woods at the moment and it is humbling to find myself agreeing with Aquinas (who as a feminist I have been pretty dismissive of all these years). And I see that God is calling me to the humility of coming back toward the tradition that hurt me so much and rejected me so deeply and coming with an attitude of strength and courage to listen. There is wisdom in Aquinas when he talks about how ultimately unknowable God is and yet how fervently we must seek her (please not Aquinas never to my knowledge uses this pronoun for God, but I do)…that is such an exact echo of the dream I had as a confused young woman where God told me that I would never gain certainty, nothing but traces of “truth” but that it was my calling to always seek this “truth” and then after I despaired of what sounded to me like futility God held me and carried me and brought me to her heart.
And to see that these patriarchal writers (as I saw them) were actually in between being wrong about so many things also lovers of the same beautiful Wisdom that calls me, is to be called to a sense of humility about all the ways I could still be wrong and oppressive but also a new appreciation of the everlastingness of God’s love in the walk with humanity. If I walk humbly with my beautiful God I will never hate myself, I will glow in the radiance of her love and I will accept that love. But I will learn that all people and all things are called by her to participate in that love, I will learn to look beyond imperfections to the Truth of Her love for us all.
Seeking justice means continuing to angrily call the powers that be to account. Loving-kindness equally demands that I am uncompromising in demanding that the vulnerable receive what is their due and when necessary stand up for them. Walking humbly, means remembering to hope, remembering to love; daring to forgive and to listen and not allowing those She loves to become my enemies. Walking humbly means forgetting my fear that I am “unworthy” of her and accepting that only beautiful, persistent Wisdom can understand the fullness and apparent foolishness of her love. I am humble when I forgive myself for being “only human”, and bring even the seeming triviality of my human experience and my human fickle love to her heart to be blessed and broken and shared as her sacrament to her beloved world.