What is Community [Reflections on Humility]

In the last few weeks I have been meditating on the question, "What does it mean to be community?"  I wrote a post on this question, here .  I also sent out an email to a few professors at Austin Seminary asking them to respond to the question.  I offer to post them here as guest bloggers for y’all to read.  If you would like to respond to the question "What does it mean to be community" email me your response to thefetteredheart@gmail.com and I will post it here in the guest blogger series.  Our first installment is from Rev. Dr. Ellen Babinsky .

She offers us a reflection on humility as a response as she meditates upon, What it means to  be community.

Practicing the Presence of God: Some Reflections on Humility

A number of years ago I was introduced to the ancient monastic virtue of humility by Bernard of Clairvaux in his treatise “On the Steps of Humility and Pride.”1

I discover something new each time I read it. What follows, however, is less an analysis of Bernard’s essay, and more my reflections on the virtue of humility as a dimension of our common enterprise of theological education. These thoughts have evolved over several years under the tutelage of Bernard. I tried to maintain an encouraging tone in my reflections in an effort to support our exploration of what a culture of humility might be for us in our life and work together. Bernard listed twelve steps or stages of the fall into pride, and the ascent of humility. I have named seven categories, in no particular order; I do not see these as stages of development but rather elements of humility. The categories are numbered only for clarity’s sake; they are not ranked according to importance (although ranking them might be an interesting exercise for us). I discuss the categories in first person singular, in the hope that I not speak prematurely for us all. My intention is to leave plenty of open spaces to ponder out loud with each other.

1. Confidence

I have learned that my work doesn’t “belong” to me; it belongs to the particular community in which I work, be that the classroom, a committee, department, or the broader seminary community, or the church. Therefore I don’t have “turf” to be defended because it’s not mine to begin with. At the same time, I am passionate about my work, and I care deeply about the effect of my work on the broader community. I can have confidence that I contribute my best work to the communal work along with others. My best work is not perfect, of course, but I believe that my confidence, that I am able to contribute my best efforts, is an expression of my commitment to the life of the community.

2. Boundaries

I constantly struggle to know my limits of time, of energy, of knowledge, of interest, of responsibility. I know that limits allow me to rest and allow others to be empowered and to develop their confidence as well. Bernard of Clairvaux says that the first step toward the fall of pride is curiosity. I interpret his term, ‘curiosity,’ in the context of this reflection on humility: the temptation to tend to everybody’s business except my own. Tending to my boundaries helps me to take care of my own business first. I think this is what is meant by Bernard’s admonition to keep the eyes downcast. Bernard goes on to say there are only two reasons to raise one’s eyes: “to ask for help or to give it” (124).

3. Praise

I want not only to recognize excellence when I see it, I want to name it, give thanks for it, praise it, especially to others. When I praise the excellence of others’ work, insights, creativity, I contribute to a communal culture of appreciation. This posture of praise and thanksgiving helps me maintain an awareness of the presence of God, in the sense that so may good things are in abundance because of God’s abundant goodness toward us all.

4. Silence

This aspect of humility can be difficult in a setting where talk is highly valued, and yet I think the admonition to silence is worthy of attention. There are many kinds of silence. There is a kind of silence where one might be the last to enter a conversation, and where one would not have the last word. On the other hand, there is a silence that excludes and shuts off relationship. There is a silence that listens, actively engaging the thought of another. On the other hand, there is a silence that only waits for the conversation to be over, but hears nothing that has been said. There is silence that waits for the words of another, as long as it takes, to hear another into her truth as she knows it. There is silence that is wordless prayer, that knows only the stillness of the presence of God.

5. Trust

I believe the element of trust can counter a sort of competitiveness, a “zero sum” mentality that if one is rewarded another will by definition lose out. That mentality is difficult to countermand, but I believe a competitive attitude can diminish trust. I see trust as a kind of openness to what God is doing with me, and among us all. I want to trust that others will see my excellence…. if I give them an opportunity to see it. I seek a trust that what comes to pass will be to my good if I allow myself to grow into and learn from it. I hope for a trust that a particular assignment, whatever it is, is an opportunity to learn, and then embrace the opportunity. In this case I trust that God is present in the endeavor, that the effort presents an opportunity, or opportunities, to receive gifts of the spirit. I can only receive these gifts if my hands are open to receive, if my heart is pliable and ready to receive the word of grace that God has for me in the moment. I trust that if I seek this word of grace, I will receive it.

6. Show up

This element is hard for me, and it may be that this aspect is related to obedience. Too often I believe I have something “better” to do than to take my time to show up for… a service of worship, an evening with…, a birthday celebration, a party. Perhaps showing up is another side to hospitality. To show up is to honor, possibly share, or even embrace, the cause of another. To show up means I recognize that my presence is an important part of a communal event, that my presence, along with all who are there, is yet another set of “decibels” in the polyphony of praise to God who has made us for each other. Frequently I try to rationalize that, after all, I’m an introvert and I need my private time. Somebody once said the traits of an introvert would make a good monk. Actually, I have lived among monastics; they show up all the time. They call it community.

7. Prayer

Prayer is so clearly an aspect of humility that I find it difficult to discuss. Prayer is an expression of my dependence on God. Prayer can aid in protecting me from assuming I have all the answers. Prayer moves my focus beyond myself. During the Lord’s Supper, at the church I attend, just before the people come forward to receive the elements , the pastor declares, “Holy things for holy people!” The people respond, quite loudly – actually more like a shout– “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ!”, as if to correct the audacity of the pastor’s statement. It is a powerful moment for me. This exclamation, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ!” has become for me a constant prayer. I say it privately to myself off and on all day; I say it before I go to sleep. This prayer grounds me in everything I do so that I find I am able to pray without ceasing; to pray for God’s presence in a text, or a task before me, to pray when I am feeling anxious or frightened. “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ” – over my fears, over my worries, over those I hold dear, those with whom I have difficulty dealing. “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ” – nothing else, no one else, is.

I have named seven elements; I am sure there are more. Even with these seven it is apparent that the virtue of humility is so deep and broad that it is the savor, the salt of community. I am thinking that if humility is difficult to articulate, it is even more difficult to teach. I’m guessing one could model humility, but that would be tricky. I’m uncomfortable with the assertion I can teach others abut humility. More to the point, if I believe I understand humility I probably do not.

On the other hand, the context of teaching is at the same time a context of learning; that is, it just might be true that while I intend to learn humility, I teach it as well. I was introduced to the virtue of humility by reading a text; the seed of my desire to learn humility was sown as I spent some time with the sisters at the Monastery of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. While there I encountered a “powerhouse of prayer” in a community of women which lives out some of the dynamics of humility I have attempted to name above. I began to learn humility by living alongside, for a time, those who practice it, which is my point. I’m not certain how to teach humility apart from the daily embrace of the desire and struggle to practice it.

Brother Lawrence was a lay brother among the Carmelites in Paris in the mid-17th century, who began his day in the kitchen with this prayer, which points me in the direction:

O my God, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.2

1 Evans, G. R., trans., Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works , “On the Steps of Humility and Pride,” Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1987), 99-143.

2 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God: Being Conversations and Letters of Nicholas Herman of Lorraine (Old Tappan, New Jersey: 1978, Fleming H. Revell Company), 27.

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