I’ll let you in on a little secret: I love Kung Fu movies; movies with Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung. Even David Carradine, who starred in the TV series Kung Fu. What I’ve appreciated—not so much the violence—is the graceful dance of the Kung Fu and the wisdom that comes from ancient China-Shaolin monks and practitioners, Taoists, and so on. I recently watched The Birth of the Dragon about Bruce Lee’s early days in San Francisco. He encountered a Shaolin monk who had experienced shame in China and was washing dishes for penance in California. Bruce Lee was full of himself and there was little room for vulnerability and openness. The Shaolin monk talked about fullness coming from emptiness and Bruce Lee was able to learn the art of humility and self-emptying.
In the last week, there have been some seismic shifts in our world; the election on Monday was very interesting and very disappointing in some ways. Part of the disappointment for me had to do with the ways in which public discourse has occurred in the immediate aftermath of the election. CBC reported on the incredibly inflammatory, personal, partisan and hurtful language used online and in some face-to-face encounters between people who had very different political ideals. We seem to be in this age of say-what-you-think-and-who-cares-about-the-aftermath and that makes it incredibly hard to have respectful discourse, good dialogue and true conversation. We’ve lost the art of being other-focused and attentive in listening. We’re in an age of being full of ourselves.
Contrast the discourse in the campaign and aftermath of the election with the powerful protest by young people in Vancouver on Friday. I listened to some of the speeches and thought of ancient Chinese wisdom of fullness coming from vulnerability and emptiness. Our young people—including Linn and others from our own community—are teaching us the way of abundance when it comes to change and a new future. It’s not through self-inflated rhetoric but through humble transformation.
As Christians, we are followers of one who, in the words of an early Church hymn made famous by the Apostle Paul, was about self-emptying; here’s the quote from Philippians: “In Christ Jesus, who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born of human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself…” (Phil. 2:6-7a) Theologians call this kenosis—self-emptying.
Being full of ourselves, it is hard sometimes to actively empty ourselves so that we might experience the fullness of the other, the fullness of love, the fullness of life. But this is the path that Jesus invites us to walk, the path of self-emptying love that is filled with Spirit, with hope and with compassion.
Benedict Carey writes for the New York Times about health, well-being and psychology. He recently wrote an article called Be Humble, and Proudly, Psychologists Say. The caption under the article read, “Humility is not the boldest of personality traits, but it’s an important one, studies find. And it’s hard to fake.” Those researchers quoted in the article wrote in the latest edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science. They said that humility is “characterized by an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities, and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.” Carey claims that the word humble is more often used as a verb rather than an adjective today. The desire to humble someone can lead to attacking another online or in-person and aggressive speech toward people with a different perspective. At the end of the article, Carey makes reference to the fact “that in the modern age of online posturing and self-promotion, Charlie Brown would have to raise his hand and squawk just to register his presence.” The stats, according to Carey, are that there are between 10 and 15 percent of adults that score highly on the humility scale… in North America, that’s almost 30 million people! Who knew?! (That’s how Carey ended the article. “Who Knew there were 30 million humble people in NA?”)
What I constantly remember when I watch a good Kung Fu movie is that we have to practice. Having a practice is one way that we can increase humility and other-orientation. That’s part of what Jesus invited on this path of self-emptying. Jesus didn’t talk about spiritual practices in those days, but the idea that we pray, take time alone, engage in sacred meals, talk, listen, cultivate a sense of openness and joy in living are everywhere in the stories of Jesus.
As a meditator, I’m a follower of the World Community of Christian Meditation. I’ve mentioned John Main before; when he was in the British Foreign service, he travelled the East. He encountered many monks and nuns who were engaged in meditation and spiritual practices—Buddhists, Hindus and many other religious traditions, including Christian meditators. He did research into his own Roman Catholic background and discovered the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the silent, ancient meditative practice of Christianity. When he left the Foreign Service, he went into a Benedictine Monastery and began the path of meditation, both learning and teaching this ancient practice. He died back in the ’90s after bringing meditation to Montreal and Canada. He once said, “The journey (of meditation) is a simple one. It requires a certain vision of its importance, a certain humility to begin, and a certain fidelity and courage to persevere. It needs above all, perhaps, the willingness to be led into fullness. These are all essential human qualities that are needed for any fruitful contact with life. And the journey is an ordinary one. We don’t follow it in order to sensationalize life but to see every aspect of life as the mystery it is.”
What I like about Main’s quote is the idea that humility, arising out of meditation and spiritual practice, brings a fullness and an understanding of life containing the mystery of the divine. A fullness of being out of self-emptying desire to live in joy. A fullness of love. A fullness of hope. A fullness of other-orientation. A fullness to resist the temptation of being full of ourselves.
Passages like Luke’s today point to the path of humility as a path of justice and hope in the world. The challenge of today’s lesson is that we can point fingers and feel self-justified. The Pharisee, full of self-importance, is an easy target from Jesus’ story. But I don’t want to stand here and castigate the Pharisee in the story because I can see myself in this person from time to time. I can be arrogant and unfeeling and self-preoccupied. But I also see myself in the tax collector. The question is, reflected in the article on humility, how can we cultivate humility and learn to listen with an open heart? Jesus gives the answer in part by saying that it is through self-emptying love.
I think Jesus’ story invites an other-orientation. He reminds us to get out of the way of our egos and serve one another with grace, love and humility. Margaret Wheatley, after years of community organizing in many places in the world, nearing retirement, said that we need to create islands of sanity that have a different way of being than the aggressive, manic, self-filling, self-important way of the world today. The church is an island of sanity; with other faith traditions, and other groups of people who are other-oriented, we can create these islands of sanity, islands of love, islands of hope, islands of fullness and be the little seeds that grow to giant Douglass Firs of hope, compassion, humility, love and a just and right relationship with one another. It’s not an island upon which to escape, but an island to be filled like a vessel of love and hope to live our ordinary lives in the world, as John Main said.
Irene McIlwaine received a reflection from a friend that included a quote from the poet WH Auden. It was about not getting consumed by the world we live in and its disaffection and polarity; Auden affirmed our desire to be collective, bright lights that can be islands of sanity, love and humility. The poem quoted was September 1, 1939, written about the “low, dishonest ’30’s” (Auden’s quote) and the build-up to World War 2—there have been other difficult and challenging times in history and people learned to self-empty the fear and let the light fill and shine through; in the last stanza of this longish poem, it says:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
 See the online version of the article at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/health/psychology-humility-pride-behavior.html.
 See the website at http://wccm.org. John Main OSB, Monastery Without Walls p115.