Down to Earth

(The Nationalist, 27 August 2004)


Not far from where I live in Belfast stands the Royal Victoria Hospital. From the Grosvenor Road, there is an entrance to it which leads past a statue of Queen Victoria. Her Majesty sits squat on her throne, her head crowned, a sceptre in one hand, an orb in the other, and two lions stretch submissively at the imperial feet while she stares with bronze eyes at the distant horizons of Empire. She is often adorned with either an empty beer can tucked in her elbow, or a cigarette-butt hanging from the corner of her mouth.

At Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous said of the woman who appeared to her, ‘No one ever spoke to the Soubirous like she did’. The Soubirous were at the bottom of the heap, nobodies in an obscure village of nobodies. Mary treated them with respect, and that was a new experience for them.

Jesus subverted the accepted social order of his time where the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind were not allowed to mix in ordinary society. For him there was one table for all, one family of God. He made insiders of outsiders.

Jesus made fun of self-importance, of one-upmanship, the phoney image-building that “celebrities” engage in, the petty games they play of scoring points off each other. He used the image of a guest at a banquet who chooses the lowest place in order to be seen being elevated to a higher one.

For Jesus, humility was about being down to earth. If you’re a gardener, you know what humus is. It’s soil, with maggots, rotting grass and leaves. Just like us, in fact, ordinary stuff, some of it rotten. That’s what the word humility comes from. It means knowing and accepting the truth about yourself, not being a big-head with mighty notions. (Cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable.)

Humility has nothing to do with grovelling, or apologizing for one’s existence. That’s a form of cunning, drawing attention to oneself so as to evoke praise. Humility is keeping your feet on the ground even if your head is in heaven.

Humility is able to recognize good qualities in others, and also in oneself, but acknowledges them as gifts. ‘What have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’ (1 Corinthians 4.7) Maybe the only things we can strictly lay claim to as our own are our sins.