For our jail bible study this past week, we decided to do Sunday’s gospel reading, which just so happened to be the Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12), the litany of blessings that Jesus bestows on the weak, the discouraged, the sad, and the lonely. I thought, in the jail of all places, that people would really be able to understand the pertinence of Jesus’ upside-down view of things. I thought, well, if anyone understands this passage…
The guys were definitely appreciative of the good news in those lines. The meek inheriting the earth? Comfort for those who weep? They said it sounded like everything that’s wrong would be made right. I then asked them, “Why do you think God prefers weakness so much? What is it about being weak/sad/discouraged?”
Crickets. I got nothing. After a few minutes of prodding and more silence, I just moved on to another question. They didn’t know why God might choose suffering. Suffering, disrepute, poverty—these things seemed not to make much sense in a list of blessed qualities, and no one in their right mind, much less God Almighty, could really see much good behind them.
If I’m honest, I don’t either. I can (and did) throw out a dozen “theology of the cross” idioms in bible study—how “God’s office is at the end of my rope” or how with God “the way up is down.” I can quote you 2 Corinthians 12:9. But, much as the scriptures and the mantras are true, they are often used to evade and explain away what is trenchantly unexplainable. When I am suffering, I do not see the pearl of great price in my suffering, and I am not easily comforted that God would, either.
Which takes me to the “First Words” column of this week’s NYT Magazine, wherein the word of the week is “humbled.” Carina Chocano discusses how the word, lately colloquialized by athletes, politicos, and all the other headline-snatching winners, has come to mean its exact opposite.
We are living in humbling times. People are humbled all over the place. Lately it’s pro forma — possibly even mandatory — for politicians, athletes, celebrities and other public figures to be vocally and vigorously humbled by every honor awarded, prize won, job offered, record broken, pound lost, shout-out received, “like” copped and thumb upped…To pronounce yourself humbled is to announce your greatness but also to hedge against any backlash to it.
… It seems worth pointing out, though, that none of this is what “humbled” actually means. To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast — things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine.
“Humbled” is what a politician might have been, in pre-post-truth times, if, say, caught doing the very thing he had campaigned to criminalize. To be “humbled” is to find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to shimmy awkwardly off your pedestal, or your high horse — or some other elevated place that would not have seemed so elevated had you not been so lowly to begin with — muttering apologies and cringing, with your skirt riding up past your granny pants. It is to think you are in a position of fanciness, only to learn to your utter chagrin that you are in a relatively modest one instead.
Whereas being “humbled” today means coming to terms with a blessing you earned, being “humbled” really means coming to terms with a reality you are powerless to face. It is the dissolution of your idea of you, the god you, in the face of something much bigger. Like its Latin root humus (“ground,” “soil”), humbling means falling apart, eroding, decomposing.
Using this meaning, the broadcast networks would alight upon some, well, let’s say more colorful stories of the righteous humbled: wives and husbands caught cheating, pastors caught stealing, career climbers in basement meetings, Heisman hopefuls now playing Arena Football, schoolyard bullies with bigger bullies, cancer. And then there’s the workaday #humbled—their aging bodies, their public farts, their beautiful and talented social media frenemies. It’s no surprise we choose the other definition.
Besides these great and small calamities, Chocano offers that humility can also come when we stand before something truly awesome (in the true sense of that word, not its tweeny “omg dyyinnnnngg” sense). She writes, “Sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast—things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine.” It is the moment of slack-jawed wonder you find at the end every gospel miracle account: “…and they were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this?’” I’m reminded of Peter who, after experiencing the miraculous catch of fish, says to Jesus, “Leave me. I’m a sinful man.”
Chocano illustrates that, while humility is a Christian virtue, this is not something that you cultivate so much as something that happens to you. It hasn’t stopped the word from gaining—much like its piety brag “blessed”—a note of sanctimony disguised as gratitude. Like the Pharisee thanking God in the temple, it is really a fancy way of say nothing at all.
We brag about being humble to our voter base, fan base, Twitter followers. We close our eyes in gratitude for our success. We look up in beatific wonder at all we have accomplished. We bow our heads in recognition of this thing that’s bigger than us, than our massive egos, and we’re humbled by its immensity. And why not? It’s got to be huge to eclipse us.
Speaking of immensity, I don’t know about where you are, but here in Virginia, there’s an immense case of the norovirus going around, with lots of people feeling pretty humbled around their very own porcelain throne. Including yours truly. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that while the fetal position on the bathroom floor is no “beatific wonder,” it will make you a praying person. There’s no experience that makes you childlike more quickly than a stomach bug, when you cry out, “Where are you? Will it be like this forever? Make it go away!”
Back to the Beatitudes and the jail bible study: blessed are the weak, the discouraged, the sad, the lonely. It seems to me that Jesus isn’t commanding discouragement so much as saying it is a fact of life that everyone deals with. Humility isn’t a virtue you can cultivate any more than a stomach bug. Who would choose humility? If I’m honest, not me. And not you. We’d much rather prefer, “I’m humbled and honored to receive this gift, which I’ve always wanted, and worked for tirelessly.” This is the Beatific wonder of real humility, though, that God blesses those moments to show us who’s not God. For a brief, un-asked-for moment, you are dealt the virtuous collapse of your own say, and given instead the need for a savior. Until then, though…