With what shall I come before the Lord, / and bow before God most high? / Shall I come before him with burnt offering, / with calves a year old? / Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams / with myriad streams of oil? / Shall I give my first born for my crime, / the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? / You have been told what is good, / and what the Lord requires of you: / Only to do the right and to love goodness, / and to walk humbly with your God.
Hosea 6: 6-8
Today’s reading from Hosea is among the most well known passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was introduced into the United States’ secular canon by Jimmy Carter, when he quoted it in his inaugural address. As was experienced in the course of Carter’s tenure in office, it is a difficult way to implement in the public sphere of national and geopolitical life. Perhaps it is that very contrast between this simple and direct call of what God asks of us and the realities of a world in which power dynamics hold sway that should lead us to ponder how radical is its call.
In the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes from one of the earliest Christian hymns: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
From the Christian perspective, to “do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” requires that we relate to each other not out of a position of power but rather of looking to the interest of the other rather than our own. This teaching of humility in relationship is based on the life of Jesus, who “made himself nothing” for our sake. To walk humbly with God, as Adam and Eve once did, requires that we lose our lives as we have built them in reaction to the sinful forces of this world. Concretely this means that we are to practice consistently putting aside our self-interest in favor of the interest of others.
For the most part, we relate as human beings by means of “relations of force.” The best of relationships, as we tend to measure them, are those which are mutually gratifying. That is the needs, desires, and demands of one are successfully negotiated with those of the other. It is a case of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” As long as the “balance of power” is kept, the relationship works. When the balance shifts too much one way or another, then the relationship totters. When one party is much more powerful than another, the relationship depends on the level of gratification the weaker one gains from his or her dependence and the stronger from his or her dominance. Given the reality of human insatiability, however, such a distorted sense of “balance” can seldom be long maintained.
Relations of force are always precarious because they are fundamentally built on illusion, the illusion of our pride form. Relationship, be it interpersonal, religious, or political is a continual negotiation. But what precisely are we negotiating? At the level of our pride form, of our unconscious, we are constantly negotiating how gratifying being in relationship to this person, or group, or God, for that matter, is for us. The measure of the good and the right, as well as the nature of our love, is our demand that our false or pride form be enhanced and gratified.
Recently I have personally been experiencing a rather significant re-orientation of my sense of relationship to others, of my personal affections. As we attempt as a community to address our serious lack of knowledge of and communication with each other, I discover that some whom I hardly knew and had little feeling for are becoming more and more significant to me. This is not only a cognitive but also an affective experience. I am feeling close to and coming increasingly to care about some for whom I have not had much of any feeling in the past. I experience that their openness, humility, and good will are deeply affecting me. And some, whom I have taken to be the closest to me, I am discovering I hardly know at all. This experience is leading me to reconsider how I spontaneously appraise people and then move towards, against, or away from them. It has exposed to me the power of my own pride form in the ways I judge and so relate to others.
I am recognizing that what is creating the possibility of new and closer relationships with others is not our power over or demand for gratification from each other, rather it is a willingness to be vulnerable, to allow the possibility of something new happening through our encounter. It is the willingness to express our deeper desires, desires that we had mostly kept hidden in fear or shame. In light of where we find ourselves as a community, it is a willingness to commit ourselves to each other in the face of our fears of diminishment and death. When we are acting out of our pride form, we keep our true self hidden, fearful that the others will recognize our fear and vulnerability. We measure out carefully what we give of ourselves in light of what the other has to offer us, forgetting that Jesus has told us that “with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
The problem with relationship based on our pride form or overdeveloped ego is that we always know its precariousness. As long as the truth of our vulnerability remains hidden, we must waste our energy preserving the lie. We can never fully attend to the other first, because we must always be certain that the other not glimpse our own weakness. As the circumstances of life and the needs of others summon us to presence, we shall always be carrying our own fears of our inadequacies and our shame of our poverty. So, as Hosea implies, to “do the right and to love goodness” requires that we walk humbly with our God.
To experience another who is not afraid of his or her vulnerability and weakness is to realize a possibility of relationship that is not limited by the force of the pride form. Yet, it is really difficult for us to trust each other. A famous story about the Buddha illustrates this point. One day the Buddha was walking toward a great forest. The people who saw him yelled at him to warn him that the feared criminal Angulimala lived in that forest. The Buddha, however, just kept steadily and slowly on his way. Angulimala had once been a brilliant student, but he evoked the envy of his fellow students who poisoned the view of their teacher toward him. The teacher demanded, then, of Angulimala that he pay an honorarium of a thousand human right-hand little fingers. Of course, people did not willingly give up their fingers, so Angulimala had to resort to violence and killing to obtain the fingers, which he then strung around his neck, thus his name which means “finger necklace.”
Angulimala spotted the Buddha walking in the forest, and so grabbed his weapons and went after him. Although the Buddha was walking slowly and serenely, Angulimala could not catch up with him. So, he yelled to the Buddha to stop. The Buddha then turned to him and told him that he, the Buddha, had long since stopped killing and harming, so now it was time for Angulimala to do the same. Immediately Angulimala stopped, threw down his weapons, and followed the Buddha back to the monastery, where he became a monk.
We speak of humility often in the spiritual life, perhaps far too glibly. For, humility does not come easily or naturally to us. The very nature of the “character” we develop is defensive, and so spontaneously responds with a violence that is fueled by our fear of discovery. Angulimala, at the lack of fear and simple integrity and honesty of the Buddha, throws down his weapons. In the face of the openness and vulnerably of others, I am summoned to do the same. From this place, the possibility of a new and truer human relationship is possible. This is likewise true of our relationship with God. It is at the moment when Theodore Ryken is brought low and put in his true place that he spontaneously turns toward God, falls in love, and places himself in God’s service. Being in God’s service, as St. Paul says, is to value others above ourselves and to look first to their interest. By losing the life we have built in self-defense, we come to realize the right and the goodness that is the love of God for us.
From the beginning of his conversion, blessed Francis, with the Lord’s help, like a wise builder, established himself upon solid rock, that is the greatest humility and poverty of the Son of God, calling his religion ‘Lesser Brothers’ because of great humility.
At the the beginning of the religion, he wanted the brothers to stay in hospitals of lepers to serve them, laying the foundation of holy humility in this way. Whenever nobles and commoners came to the Order, they were told, among other things, that they had to serve the lepers humbly and stay in their houses, as it was prescribed in the first Rule.
They did not desire to have anything under heaven, except holy poverty, by which, in this world they are nourished by the Lord with bodily and spiritual food and, in the next, will attain a heavenly inheritance.
He laid the foundation both for himself and for others on the greatest humility and poverty because, although he was a great prelate in the church of God, he wanted and chose to be lowly not only in the church, but also among his brothers. In his opinion and desire, this lowliness was to be the most sublime exaltation in the sight of God and of the people.
A Mirror of the Perception of a Lesser Brother, III, 290