From one of my favorite blogger, Sr Macrina of “Vow of Conversation,” comes this from St Augustine:
You are to “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” You are not learning from me how to refashion the fabric of the world, nor to create all things visible and invisible, nor to work miracles and raise the dead. Rather, you are simply learning of me: “that I am meek and lowly in heart.” If you wish to reach high, then begin at the lowest level. If you are trying to construct some mighty edifice in height, you will begin with the lowest foundation. This is humility. However great the mass of the building you may wish to design or erect, the taller the building is to be, the deeper you will dig the foundation. The building in the course of its erection rises up high, but he who digs its foundation must first go down very low. So then, you see even a building is low before it is high and the tower is raised only after humiliation.
Saint Augustine, Sermon 69.2, quoted in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1 – 13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 232.
Reading this brings to mind the observation, or maybe aphorism, of Carl Jung. He writes in I believe it is “Christ the Symbol of the Self,” that no tree reaches up to heaven unless its roots first reach down to hell.
One of the things that is often misunderstood about the Christian view of transcendence, and here Augustine and Jung are instructive, is that transcendence—the movement beyond—is not simply an upward or outward movement. Rather in Christian spirituality the movement upward and outward toward God is also a movement inward and downward. God is not simply the object of my love and desire, He is also the Ground out of which that love and desire grows. He is also the Way that my love and desire must take.
For the Christian, personal transcendence is never a simple matter of a linear progression in which I leave the past beyond. It is rather a more dynamic movement by which I embrace evermore fully my life. But that life is always a Gift and a gift—that is, it is a life that comes ultimately from God, but always through other human beings and creation itself. My life therefore is always a “Gift” with an uppercase “G” because it comes from God even as it is always also a “gift” with a lower case “g” because it also always comes through the creation.
We tie ourselves up in spiritual and emotional knots when we oppose what the Medieval Latin Church called primary causality (God) and secondary causality (for simplicities sake, the laws of nature in the broad sense). Our knowledge of God is unmediated, but this does not mean divorced from creation. “God is not only beyond our knowing, but our unknowing as well,” writes St Gregory Palamas. “We see something but in a way superior to negation.” Or, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NKJV)
In this life, or so I would suggest, we can and do have glimpses, moments when we see God “face to face.” There are time when we “know” God, our self, the creation just as are known by God. There is, or so I read the mystical tradition, a moment when we come to realize that what matters is not that I know God, not that I choose Him, that He is the object of my intention, or even that I love. Rather what matters is that God knows me, He has chosen me, that He intends me, that He loves me.
I am because I am loved by God and that loves is wide enough, pure enough, to embrace not only me, but all creation. More than that, it is a love that is strong enough, pure enough, humble enough, to make room in itself for all the other smaller, contingent loves that constitute my life.
Humility is the virtue that returns me to myself as I have come from all Eternity from the Hand of a loving God. And this virtue humility is such that it allows me to embrace the Gift of my own life in such a way that, in imitation of the Most Holy Trinity, I can embrace with gratitude the other, smaller gifts that make my life possible. What I am prone to call the conflicting goods in my life is the symptom of my pride, my lack of humility.
The I experience my life as conflicting goods, conflicting Eternal and contingent gifts, because I lack humility and instead am trying to create my life out of my own imagination rather than accepting my life as the convergence of Uncreated and created graces.
The solution is as Augustine and Jung counsel. I must turn inward, go downward. I must begin at the very bottom of my own life and only then move upward. But in making this journey to the lowest, I need to exercise great care that what brings me down is not despair or morbid self-hatred, but a cheerful detachment from my own plans and projects. To borrow from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” He goes on to say:
This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
Is there a contradiction here? Maybe, but I think it is better called a paradox and one which many of us have trouble grasping.
Yes, by all means let me take my direction from Augustine and Jung. But let me also remember that, for all their wisdom (and in Augustine’s case, evident holiness) these wise men were still men and could not say everything at once. And so, let me also take counsel from Chesterton. Let me learn humility from one and joy from the other. Humility without joy is neurosis, but joy without humility is narcissism.