Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story:
A young man wanted to learn how to draw lotus flowers, so he went to a master to apprentice with him. The master took him to a lotus pond and invited him to sit there. The young man saw flowers bloom when the sun was high, and he watched them return into buds when night fell. Then next morning, he did the same. When one lotus flower wilted and its petals fell into the water, he just looked at the stalk, the stamen, and the rest of the flower, and then moved on to another lotus. He did that for ten days. On the eleventh day, the master asked him, “Are you ready?” and he replied, “I will try.” The master gave him a brush, and although the young man’s style was childlike, the lotus he drew was beautiful. He had become the lotus, and the painting came forth from him. You could see his naïveté concerning technique, but deep beauty was there. (more…)
It’s gone out of fashion. Even in Christian circles we associate humility with the mothballed faith of our grandmothers. These days we have more hip spiritual practices, like living in the present moment and doing yoga and advocating for GLBTQA rights. Why bother groveling? With anything that might undermine our pride? Spirituality’s supposed to make us feel good, right?
Lately I’ve been reading some Benedictine spirituality. Joan Chittister believes the Rule of Saint Benedict is a relevant and alive document, one that speaks directly to the contemporary consciousness. In my skepticism, I came across this question in the Rule—“Who will dwell in your tent, O God?”—and Benedict’s answer: “These people reverence God, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is God’s strength, not their own, that brings about the good in them. They praise the Holy One working in them, and say with the prophet: “Not to us, O God, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone” (Ps. 115:1).
The rare times I’ve taken humility seriously, I’ve worked to think less of myself in favor of some other. Down with the ego! But to Benedict, the practice of humility says nothing about us and everything about God. God is goodness and strength working through us. Say I’m a lamp. I can feel awfully proud of my bright flame, and then practice humility the old way by saying, “Bad lamp! Your flame’s not so great.” Or I can follow Benedict’s suggestion and say, “Divinity is burning here, too. Praise be!”
I love this, for two reasons. God is not some abstract, absent being but goodness working through me—near, daily, tangible, real. And by remembering this, repeatedly, I place myself in a dynamic relationship with God, that is, with the strength and goodness that makes the world go ‘round. The glory is with God. Isn’t that marvelous?
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew