BEING GROUNDED | by Joe Pawlika
In reflecting back on his conversion experience, Ryken writes:
It was then that I experienced a deep humiliation. That was the reason for my conversion and for the fact that I fell in love with the service of God.
Whenever I read this brief account of Ryken’s life-changing experience, my attention is always drawn to the words “deep humiliation.” At the simplest level, my curiosity is piqued. What was this experience of deep humiliation? At a slightly deeper level I am consoled in the assurance that no human being seems able to avoid experiences of deep humiliation. At an even deeper level, I wonder, why is it that my experiences of humiliation do not usually lead to falling in love with the service of God?
BEING – HUMILIATED
Ryken uses the word vernedering when he recounts his conversion experience. That word has been translated into English in various ways: “deep humiliation,” “brought low,” “put in my place.” I suppose we could expand this list with the experiences of being: shamed, insulted, embarrassed, ignored or put-down. However we translate vernedering, there is something uncomfortable about the experience of being “humiliated.” These experiences may very well at times be degradations and de-humanizations that unjustly debase and violate the dignity and beloved-ness of the human person. But are there ever humiliations that can be the source of conversion and transformation? Do we ever give a humiliation the chance to lead us to a deeper truth and to a deeper Ground of Being? When solid ground is lacking; when we have no solid ground on which to stand, it seems to me that we are very quick to create or re-establish our own ground of comfort, control and security. This ground we gradually and carefully cultivate over time to serve as the foundation of our lives, the “home” in which we dwell: where we hold ourselves to be clever, smart and right; where we feel we are in charge and can make things happen; where we are noticed, admired and indispensable. It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise when real life speaks with the embarrassing news: “You really didn’t understand what you thought you knew.”; “You really made a mess of things with that short-sighted plan!” or “We did fine without you.”; “Sorry, we forgot to invite you;” or “We didn’t even notice that you weren’t there.” Why don’t these humiliating moments lead to conversion and transformation? Perhaps once again, we are too quick to get to work at re-establishing our own ground of security. Perhaps we are too quick to put others at fault for not colluding with us in firming up the ground on which we choose to stand. If we were free enough to “let go” to stop clinging to the ground that we have created, would we then fall to a Ground that underlies the “tissue-thin” world of our own creation? Is this how we learn who we really are?
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated. We keep getting closer and closer to our center. Every now and then God lifts a corner of the veil and enters into our awareness through various channels, as if to say, “Here I am. Where are you? Come and join me.”
Daily life constantly triggers events that frustrate our emotional programs for happiness. Then such afflictive emotions as fear, anger, and discouragement arise automatically. The fact that we experience anxiety and annoyance is the certain sign that, in the unconscious, there is an emotional program for happiness that has just been frustrated.
Thomas Keating, “The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation.” Harold M. Wit Lectures at Harvard University, The Divinity School, 1997
BEING – HUMBLED
There is perhaps a different route to the grounding that lies at the heart of conversion and transformation. The route of humiliation goes by way of putting down the ego: the arrogance of its way of knowing; its claim to power and control; its self-centered longing for recognition and admiration; its self-promotion and self-exaltation. This route tends to be a painful process since the harder we have worked and the longer we have lived behind the masks that we have created, the more difficult it will be to “remove them without removing some of our own skin.” (Andre Berthiaume) Another route, the route of being humbled offers itself in moments of self-forgetfulness when in awe, gratitude, appreciation and love we behold what is before us with a fresh and perhaps ec-static presence. We are grounded, but now in the sense of being overwhelmed in seeing afresh what has always been there for our beholding. We experience a clarity, a simplicity, a unity and communion that infuse and surpass our “taken-for-granted” way of being. A classic Koan puts it this way:
To those who do not understand – things are just as they appear. To those who do understand – things are just as they appear.
We cannot manipulate things as they truly are to create these experiences since they ask for a surrender, an abandonment of our usual ways of being so that we might experience things as they truly are. This self-abandonment is the pathway to being truly humbled. Different from the path of humiliation, this humbling has about it a sense of peace, simplicity, communion and rest. No matter how much we would like to remain in this moment of awe, the moment passes quickly and we return to the more common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life. But we return with a memory of the Ground on which we momentarily stood and that memory guides the appraisals and choices that lie before us. I suspect that the Transfiguration story (Matthew 17: 1 – 8) gives a recounting of such a moment of humbling in the lives of the apostles.
Six days later, three of them saw that glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.
Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.
Whether the recognition and acceptance of our simple, graced humanity comes via the route of BEING HUMILIATED or BEING HUMBLED, there needs to be a willingness on our part to abandon the masks and self-constructions that preoccupy us and serve as the foundation of our everyday life. There also needs to be a willingness to place ourselves in situations and environments that evoke self-forgetfulness: nature, art, music, friendship, love, compassion, service, contemplation. Either route leads to BEING – TRULY GROUNDED, to standing in a “place” where:
- our knowing involves our willingness to be constant “searchers” who humbly accept the limits of our knowledge and who offer to others the knowledge, insight and wisdom that our life reveals to us;
- our doing involves the humble acceptance of our gifts and limitations as well as our willingness to offer them to others in doing what we can and in humbly accepting the gifts and service of others;
- our loving involves the cultivation of the un-manipulative , un-exclusive relationships that make real the communion in which we most foundationally participate.
Whether we proceed via one route or another, through humiliation or awe-filled presence we are called to share in the mind of Christ:
So if in Christ there is anything that will move you, any incentive in love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any warmth or sympathy — I appeal to you,make my joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love, one in heart and one in mind.
But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being,
he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
And for this God raised him high, and gave him the name which is above all other names;
so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus
(Philippians 2: 2 – 11)
About the Author
Brother Joseph Pawlika, a Xaverian Brother for 54 years, has served as Director of Formation and Director of Novices for the Congregation. He is currently a member of the guidance department at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Massachusetts.
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