The Struggle with Humility

Stephan de PalyFor the better part of a year I have been working with Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle, a refashioning of Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. Part of me feels guilty about spending all of this time with this derivation of such a classic text, with all of its modern directions about “Soul Work” and journaling, but I have to trust my 21st century spirit and give her what she needs. Though I’ve had the original out from the library for ages (in the guise of two tragically plain looking volumes that hold 1960s translations of the saint’s complete works) I know that my chances of really reading unmediated Teresa is rather remote, while I know I will give time to the process as Myss lays it out.

Before you can come anywhere near the pyrotechnics of the soul that mark the mystic’s experience (and I use that term facetiously, knowing that a great deal of the journey to the Divine is rooted in silent communion rather than blinding visions and moments of levitation) one has to work with what Teresa calls the “reptiles.” These are the fears and hang ups and frailties that keep you from real communion with your sacred self. The reptiles are the petty shreds of the all too human preoccupations that keep us from embracing divinity.

Myss introduces humility as a necessary “quality of character” as one walks the spiritual path; understanding it builds the essential foundation as you journey upward to the turrets of the soul castle. She writes: “humility allows you to recognize an acknowledge all the positive qualities of body, mind, and spirit in another person”; “humility disarms the competitive voice”; and “humility enables you to understand another person’s motivations and to transcend any negativity.”

It’s written in a bit of a self-helpy way, but all of these things seem really quite wonderful and I can certainly get excited about the positive outcomes engendered by embracing humility and shifting the way I relate to others. At the same time, I do not think I had ever thought about the concept of humility before I picked up this book; it certainly was never a quality I strove for. What does one think of besides kids who grew up in tiny houses (humble beginnings) and someone forced to eat their words (humble pie)? I, like so many others, was raised to be an achiever; you have to sell your skills and make sure that all of your accomplishments were recognized and applauded. Putting others first all of the time is a good way to be labeled one of the “nice” girls in class, but it is not how you get to be known as interesting or clever.

I have an awful lot invested in being considered interesting and clever, so the realization that my wittiest lines so often come at the expense of others has been a vicious reptile to wrestle with. It is this resistance to letting go of what I tend to see as hallmarks of my personality (rather than banal cruelties) that has kept me in this first mansion for months, knowing that I must go back and peel away endless layers of resistant false self. So many corners of my being are shocked to learn that the goal is recognize myself to be a humble servant of God.

That really is the ultimate goal: to figure out how to act humbly on this earth with all that you meet so that you are prepared to approach to Divine with devotion unencumbered by the petty mandates of the ego. At this point I am willing to declare it a worthy enterprise, but it doesn’t seemto be a quality that contemporary living has prepared me for. I have some more work to do so that I can fight the belief that I will need to wear a sign that declares “I’m not being shy/dull/retiring, I’m being HUMBLE!”

And so I close another entry, wondering whether I am transgressing the humility code as I hope that people find my words intriguing enough to have reach the end…

Imagining Sacred Activism While Sitting Still

God has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours,
No feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which she is to look out God’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which she is to go out doing good;
Yours are the hands with which she is to bless all now.

– Teresa of Avila

When I first discovered this prayer a few months ago I was newly alight with passions that would surely change the world simply because they burned brightly in my heart. Here was a piece of poetry that authentically spoke of God and expressed thoughts that I just had begun to realize were crying out from within my own being. I was left to wonder at how a sixteenth century Catholic saint could have written something that spoke directly to me and also to wrestle with what the content itself could mean: the eternal presence of the Divine; the sense of the sacred expressed in every shred of life, even my own; and the great responsibility inherent in such a realization. In studying Andrew Harvey‘s work I have come to know this imperative to be called sacred activism.

For a while, this was a simple phrase to throw around since it combined two terms with which I was reasonably familiar. I had co-opted “spiritual” for my own devices long ago and enjoyed the label. “Activism” was a bit more difficult since I associated it with people who quoted Chomsky over breakfast and would ask if your shoes were vegan; I respected much of what they struggled for, but found such devotion exhausting – and feared it was hypocrisy waiting to blossom. To combine the two, however, grounded the spiritual in a sense of purpose and rounded the most strident edges of activism. Having struggled to find a title for my journey for as long as I could remember, I was pleasantly surprised to find something so clever and simple.

Of course, it is the naming that is simple; inevitable challenges arise when you realize that what you do is more important than how you describe it.

“Still” is used consciously in the title of this post because it describes aspects of my current state and stands in stark opposition to the sense of “stillness” that remains elusive. The cultivation of stillness is essential if one intends to move beyond the confines of the seemingly intrinsic narcissism that marks the modern character and work effectively to help others and this planet- or so I have read. I remain frozen in the face of all that there is to “solve,” unable to dedicate myself to any cause in particular because my heartstrings will inevitably be tugged in a different direction momentarily.

I am still alight with the passion that fueled me when I first read Teresa’s words, but that passion is tinged with all of the realism that is possible when one declares herself to be something so fanciful as a creature prone to epiphanies. Through my writing and reaching out to the wisdom of others I hope to begin the task of cultivating stillness and begin this work of even imagining walking with the feet of God.