Spring was on the way, and Ahs was feeling sorry for himself. “I am just pitiful,” whined the dog. “Pitiful is what it is. My pen is pitiful. My food is pitiful. My body is pitiful. My life is pitiful.”
Isabella and Captain Midnight, the two new rabbits, were itching to scratch their toes in the dirt. They had their eyes on the soft earth with the leaf mold under the hedge south of the house. They would soon rake back the leaves, scrape out a nice trough to stretch out in, and flop over in the moist dirt on their backs.
What does the Lord require? Acts of justice, a love of kindness, and a humble walk with God, according to Amos. For some people the requirements of justice and love do not seem to be as difficult to offer God as humility. Perhaps that is because humility is allusive. Once you think you’ ve got it, you’ve lost it. Though difficult I think it is well worth aiming for. It is a key to happiness. As the Irish say, “Humility, that low sweet root from which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
Humility comes from the word humus. Humus, which is what Isabella is itching to stretch out in, refers to the brown or black material resulting from decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of the soil. The virtue of humility and the earth are intrinsically connected.
A lot about being Christian has to do with coming down where we ought to be and staying there. Here four-legged critters might have an advantage. Any significant brush with the holy can leave us reeling and unsteady with a tendency forgrandiosity and fanaticism. This is why the more one prays, the more one needs to go around barefoot, sit down, lie down, stretch down upon the earth, and stay in close touch with brothers and sisters who crawl, gallop, trot, and slither.
To be humble is not to make comparisons, observed Dag Hammarskjöld: “To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from the point of rest in ourselves.”
To be human is to encounter limits and to suffer. Through our suffering we have the opportunity to greet and love the sacred vulnerability that resides in the heart of matter and to forgive ourselves for being human. The dying God, all bloody, hanging on a tree, may repulse, offend, scandalize, or leave us unmoved and detached. Our response may mirror our inner relationship to our own human frailty. How much compassion and generosity can you bring to yourself in your situation? Not denial, resentment, or blame – but rather, gentle acceptance of who you are in your sacred independence and trust that you have been created and loved by God and are therefore worthy of your own affection and regard.
What is pitiful is when we get the notion we ought not to be pitiful and then take an attitude of contempt toward ourselves. The fact is we are pitiful – all of us, poor and meager, sinners. Can we lower ourselves enough to enter our pitiful reality, live there, and love it with Jesus?
The name Adam in the creation story in Genesis derives from adamah, which means “the ground.” It refers to God’s forming humanity from the earth. A friend translates Adam as “mudbabe.”
You don’t like the way you are, the way things are? You see room for improvement, need for change? One of the lessons of Lent and Easter is that transformation, healing, and new life come not from a magical deus ex machina that drops out of the sky to change whatever it is that doesn’t suit us. Rather, as Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, he invites us to rub our noses in the mud and honestly face the painful realities of our lives and world, as he does the same on the cross.
Feeling a little pitiful yourself? That is why the Almighty came down to earth and let us treat holiness as we treat one another. God comes to teach us to show mercy to one another. God says in Jesus, “Look, my mudbabes, I am not above being human. You ought not to be either. You are going to fail and hurt one another. You are going to make mistakes and come to the limits of your flesh, your mind, and your faith.”
Sometimes I do not know what prayer is beyond the long worn rag of human longing waved toward the heavens like a tattered flag. Today I think prayer has to do with putting down one foot after the other upon this earth, while being honest with ourselves and God about our limitations. Today I think prayer is stretching out in the dirt.
Try this. Go find a place outdoors where there is no concrete smothering the ground. Take off your shoes. Put one bare foot down upon the earth and then the other. Then kneel down on all fours and press your forehead into the ground. Feel the self-importance, pretense, and the absurd seriousness with which you take yourself drain off. Smell the earth. Take a good look at the dust from which you came and to which you will return.
Then go have a sandwich and give thanks that you are human and just exactly who you are. Savor and honor the piece of humanity you represent. And taste the goodness of humility.
Adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta F. Ross, Sheed & Ward, 2000