Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spirituality 9

Beehive Hut, Ballyferriter, October, 2005
Humility: An Introduction

This is a word which features little in our modern lexicon.  Certainly, many of us Irish do not like the word at all because we have been been subjected to oppression of one type or another for hundreds of years.  I was born in 1958, well before the the"hubris" that defined the recent Celtic Tiger era, now long dead thank God.  A good friend of mine describes that Celtic Tiger era as a delayed unconscious national reaction to the Famine and all the years of loss and more loss that followed in its wake.  That educated guess may well be true.  For Irish people of my era "humility" is a dirty word associated with grovelling and tugging one's forelock or doffing one's cap to one's superiors.  In these days of equality and a new-found pride and self-confidence we can explore more easily the true meaning of humility. 

The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humilitas", a noun related to the adjective "humilis", which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", "from the earth", or "low", since it derives in turns from the word "humus (earth)".  This etymology really appeals to this writer, that a truly humble person is firmly grounded or earthed and truly authentic or aware of their intrinsic self-worth.  Hence, it is emphasized in the realm of religious practice and ethics where the notion is often made more precise .  I'm not totally convinced of the more negative take that can be given the word in some Christian circles, that is, the notion of self-abasement.  I more taken by the Buddhist take on it which links humility where it is closely associated with ultimate Emptiness (Shunyata) and non-self (Anatta) and has very close links with being free from suffering, vexations, and all illusions of self-deception.  Humility, along with compassion and wisdom are said to be the three qualities that characterize this state of enlightenment.  The Chan (Zen) Master Li Yuansong states that enlightenment can come only after humility – the wisdom of realizing one's own ignorance, insignificance, and lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.

Dalai Lama - essence of humility
I like the association with ignorance also, because in my mind it is an essential attitude to have when one is looking for the truth in any situation.  As a philosopher I think immediately of the principle of Socratic ignorance.  One of the best known sayings of Socrates is "I only know that I know nothing". The conventional interpretation of this remark is that Socrates' wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. He believed and constantly argued that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better. The one thing he consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love", which he connected with the concept of "the love of wisdom", i.e., philosophy. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it.

Two Stories from de Mello

1. Humility

To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the Master said:

"If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else."

"I know.  An overwhelming passion for it."

"No.  An unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong."

(One Minute Wisdom, p. 78)

2. Philosophy

Tony de Mello, S.J.
Before the visitor embarked upon discipleship he wanted assurance from the Master.

"Can you teach me the goal of human life?"

"I cannot."

"Or at least its meaning?"

"I cannot."

"Can you indicate to me the nature of death and the life beyond the grave?"

"I cannot."

The visitor walked away in scorn.  The disciples were dismayed that their Master had been shown up in a poor light.  Said the Master soothingly:

"Of what use is it to comprehend life's nature and life's meaning if you have never tasted it?  I'd rather you ate your pudding than speculated on it."

(Op.cit., p. 43).

No comments: