Monday, July 25, 2016

The Testimony of Humility

"that if those who were at times under sufferings on account of some scruples of conscience kept low and humble, and in their conduct in life manifested a spirit of true charity, it would be more likely to reach the witness in others" -- John Woolman
One of the things I love about John Woolman's journal is that it conveys a sense of tenderness and humility, and two words that express humility to me in the writings of Friends are "meek" and "low". Low, of course, has a wide range of usage, but in this case I am thinking of the phrases "keep low" and "brought low". While "brought low" carries a general sense of being "brought down", it appears to me that the emphasis among many Friends was in the humbling that results from it. For example, in one of Fox's epistles: "the lofty looks of man shall be brought low, and the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down" (borrowing from Isaiah 2:12 and 2:17). The idea of "keeping low" seems to refer to remaining humble. Again from Fox: "keep low in your minds, and learn of Christ, who teacheth you humility, to keep in it".

Meekness is frequently mentioned in early Friends' writings, and one of the places I see it a lot is in confronting one another over actions. For example, Isaac Penington writes to his children about what to do when they notice evils in others, that they should first take notice of that evil in themselves and wait in the Light ("in the fear of God", actually) to be "delivered from it and kept out of it." Only then does he suggest that they "in tender pity, love and meekness, admonish they brother or sister of his or her evil, and watch to be helpful to preserve or restore them."

Meekness, lowliness and humility all seem to be both a way to encounter the Holy Spirit, and a result of that encounter. That is, there are times where we are reminded to "keep low", as if that is something we do on our own, and at other times we are "brought low" by the Spirit. Isaac Penington, in writing about "The Way and Means to Avoid Persecution" (he means avoiding persecuting others), says:
The gospel makes meek, tender, gentle, peaceable; fills with love and sweetness of spirit; teaches to love, to forgive, to pray for and bless enemies: and how shall this man persecute?"
When I got back from NCYM-C and was again immersed in the online world, it felt to me as if things had gotten far more vicious in the span of a few days. It also occurred to me that it might just seem more vicious because I spent several days in the gentle, peaceful spirit of that yearly meeting. Either way, it made me question where meekness and gentleness have gone, and why that is not one of our primary witnesses in the world, especially now. Why isn't humility listed as one of the testimonies? (aside from the fact that you can't make a word out of SPICE+H, although if you could add something with O, HOSPICE would work). The SPICE acronym is relatively new, of course. The original testimonies were more actions than ideas - using "thee" and "thou", not removing your hat for people, not swearing oaths, plain dress, refusing to fight in a war, etc. Only within the last century have our testimonies been described as general concepts. As I said before (in a manner that could have used a bit more gentleness and meekness), I don't treat the testimonies as a core set of beliefs, but rather as expressions of our shared experience of the Holy Spirit. In replying to a comment on that previous post, I realized that I think of the testimonies as touchstones, just as I do Galatians 5:22-23 ("the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control"). As touchstones, I compare my actions and leadings against them - is there love in this, is there integrity, etc.

I think humility should be in the list - that we should consider whether what we feel we are led to do is from a spirit of meekness, gentleness and humility. Maybe this means that we don't always have to be right (okay, that one stings). Maybe it means that instead of writing other people off as stupid, we try to understand why they disagree with us. Maybe it means that we are willing to be laughed at and criticized because we take a stance that our culture thinks is naïve. I know there are a lot of bad things going on in the world and I don't think we should be hiding our heads in the sand rather than confronting evil. But, I also believe that our tradition has an important witness, and that we should be willing to do things differently.

As I was writing this, I kept thinking about the phrase "the meek spirit of the gospel", knowing that I had read it somewhere, but couldn't find the reference. As it turns out, it was in a passage that I have written about before. The quote is from Elias Hicks:
[I] set forth the great danger of mixing in with the spirit of the world, which leads to strife and contention, and the promotion of parties and party animosities in civil governments: all of which have a direct tendency to engender war and bloodshed, and are therefore inconsistent for us, as a people, to touch or take part with, or to suffer our minds to be agitated thereby; as it always has led, and always will lead those, who are leavened therewith, out of the meek spirit of the gospel, which breathes "peace on earth, and good will to all men".
Now, I think there is some context necessary here. First, as I wrote recently, I don't think we should just blindly copy the actions of earlier Friends, and in Hicks' day, some Friends were very opposed to participation in government. Some of this may have come out of disillusionment with Penn's government in Pennsylvania. Hicks was sharply critical of Penn in a letter to John Murray, Jr. (See Paul Buckley's excellent "Dear Friend: Letters & Essays of Elias Hicks", pp. 17-22). Even being in a different time, however, I still recognize the truth in what he writes. Party politics do engender a warlike spirit in which members of the other parties are no longer thinking, feeling human beings, but are masked, uniformed figures to whom are ascribed a particular set of beliefs and positions. We may not all agree about the amount to which Friends should be concerned with politics, but I would hope we can at least recognize the dehumanizing spirit that has pervaded our political landscape. It is my hope that we can overcome that spirit by acting in the meek spirit of the gospel.

"Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly with one another." -- Isaac Penington to Friends in Amersham.

1 comment:

  1. I've been trying to learn keeping low for a few years. I'm sure it will take a good many more to practice it at all well.

    Finding the references in John Woolman's Journal led me to ask a scholar of Woolman about the experience, concept or testimony of keeping low. He pointed me to Margaret Fell, who "advises her readers to 'be low and watchful.' To keep low, or to be humble, enables us to be watchful. Genuine humility is a strength that empowers us to notice what is really happening rather than to be absorbed in our own fantasies, fears, ideas, and intentions. .... We need to keep low so that we do not block what we want to see, which is the activity of God in our midst."

    In a letter, Fell urged another Friend,
    And do keep low at the bottom,
    that the tree which cannot bring forth evil fruit
    may take root downward and upward,
    that so thy growth may be true,
    rooted and grounded into the rock, unmovable, ....

    This whole root image brought me to Ephesians 3:17 and Matthew 3:10, where John the Baptist is telling some viperous Pharisees and Sadducees, "Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire."

    Because of these root images and because humility is often portrayed in a false way or a way that's needlessly self-deprecating, I prefer focusing on keeping low, rather than humility. But I share your sense of its importance as a practice, experience and testimony.

    Thank you for sharing this, Mark