Confessions of a She-Geek

August 4, 2013

Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

Humility is a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. Teresa describes true humility as being essential in preparing oneself for spiritual development. Self-examination, she says, is crucial to achieving and maintaining this state of humility.

As Dr. Eric Elnes of Darkwood Brew said in a 2012 webcast, “You really can’t  move forward in this whole life of spirituality unless you are also willing to be broken apart.” Although used in a broader context regarding what it is to be a Christian, the sentiment applies here, as well. Knowing who we truly are, faults and all, makes it possible for us to approach God honestly and without self-delusion getting in the way of truth.

At the same time, Teresa says, we must avoid the pitfall of questioning God’s desire to connect with us. While it’s natural to wonder what God could possibly get out of such a relationship, we must not use that as an excuse to avoid working toward a deeper connection with the Maker of All Things.

It put me in mind of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street where a police detective comments that he can’t figure out what motivation led the suspect to commit the crime being investigated. The detective’s pragmatic partner replies that their ability to work the case is not contingent on understanding why something happened; just knowing what happened, and how. Teresa takes a similar approach to prayer. We don’t need to know why God wants us to draw nearer to Him, or what He gains in the process. It’s enough to know that He wants us.

Once the self-examination is done, and we’re laid bare to ourselves, what comes next? The obvious answer is working toward eliminating our flaws, striving to make ourselves more worthy of the gifts that come as a side effect of prayer. This is an admirable goal, but Teresa also mentions the need to cut oneself some slack: “We should not worry ourselves to death even if we cannot think a single good thought. We are unprofitable servants. So what do we suppose we can do?”

In other words, we should persist in our efforts toward self-improvement, removing those things in ourselves that impede our progress – but we should also keep in mind that spiritual development is a process, not a destination. And the process is not one we’ll ever finish. It’s a lifelong journey in unfamiliar territory, and like most journeys of discovery, it won’t necessarily follow a straight path. Don’t expect it to be a linear progression.

If faith can be defined as a river, keep in mind that rivers may flow in a general direction, but they are also full of eddies and currents. Accept that in some parts of the river you may move more quickly and steadily than others. Don’t expect to be in full control. Do your part, and stop trying to change the river.

Which brings us back to humility – recognizing our limits and shortcomings, and doing the best we can anyway. That is a lot more easily said than done, and also brings up a troubling question: does this humility thing mean we should just be content with where we are and not strive for more?

No, actually. Teresa isn’t saying that we should stop trying to deepen our faith and expand our understanding of God. She’s just saying that once the connection is made, we shouldn’t expect to be in charge of what comes next.

To go back to the metaphor, we are canoes in the river of faith. A canoe in good repair will work much better than one that’s damaged and weighted down with unnecessary junk. We need to make sure the canoe is in good working order. Make repairs when needed. Clean it. Remove the stuff that’s cluttering it up. Once we enter the river, God will control the pace and the direction; we just need to stay in the river to make progress.

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