Humility, Reality, and Enlightenment
by the Rev. Robert McCluskey
minister of the Swedenborgian Church in New York City
From Our Daily Bread

Humility has a somewhat negative or bad reputation in our day. Actually, though, we can point to three distinct levels of understanding regarding humility. First, there is the "technical" understanding of the term. In the dictionary, it is "not proud or assertive; lowly. Near the ground; not high; hence, not pretentious; unassuming." In Scripture, the meaning is even more graphic; lowly, meek, poor; depressed, bowed down; to afflict or chasten oneself; to weaken.

Second, there is the modern stereotype, where humility gets its bad reputation; this view sees humility as a cop-out, a pathology, a rap used to exploit and weaken others. Emerson has this defect in  mind when he writes: "Extremes meet and there is no better example than the haughtiness of humility." We might also think here of the stereotype of the Christian wimp. Understood internally, however, the concept of humility has more to do with strength than with weakness; with spiritual wealthy than with material poverty; with obedience than with servitude; with enlightenment and understanding than with blind faith.

King Solomon was seen as humble because he asked for wisdom and understanding; that is, his humility consisted in acknowledging his own ignorance and need of understanding. Now, he didn't say, "I'm so humble. I don't want anything." Rather, he was humble enough in his heart to know what he needed, to acknowledge his own lack. It was this openness and inner honesty which led to an increase in his own wisdom and understanding. He acknowledged the reality of his situation, and so it is only when we honestly acknowledge our need of spiritual gifts that we can become open to receiving them. "Humility, like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights." (H.D. Thoreau)

Wisdom, understanding, enlightenment. In terms of the spirit, seeing is understanding, and the light by which we understand is truth; to see clearly, in an enlightened way, is to understand in light of the truth. But to see clearly, in the light of the truth, is at the same time to encounter the reality of love: Real truth, real enlightenment, can never be a head trip, but necessarily involves us in the world of feelings, concerns, loves, and intentions. What we see in the light of truth is who we really area. To be enlightened is to see ourselves in a new way: to understand ourselves, our nature, our source, our destiny, is wisdom, all else being mere knowledge.

Humility is not simply a matter of self-denial, self-negation, and the like. Such are the appearances of humility, but they are not the essence of humility. The essence of humility begins with the acknowledgment that our power and existence is not our own. Without this awareness of the illusory nature of our proprium [selfhood], our self image, any self-denial or self-negation we engage in will be fruitless and ineffective; our humility will be less than sincere or genuine. The point is not to make ourselves miserable, but to avoid the false pleasures of the illusory, unenlightened thinking. Humility is not the presence of low self-esteem; it is the absence of false pride, or an overly high self-esteem. It is to acknowledge how it is with us and God.

Phillip Brooks writes: "The true way to be humble is not to stoop till you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that shall show you the real smallness of your greatest greatness." This kind of reality testing, the heart of humility, involves courage, faith, honesty, maturity, and a thirst for what is real.

We should note also that when Solomon asks for wisdom, he gets riches as well! Now, if the meek poverty of humility is such an unqualified good, it is not easy to see why God would grant Solomon so much wealth. Remember, though, that true wisdom is the acknowledgement of our own ignorance; true humility is the acknowledgment of the powerlessness of our own ego in spiritual matters; and so the wealth that is spoken of here refers to the goods and truths of the Lord, and the gifts of compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and service. These can now flow into our lives because they are unimpeded by an inflated sense of our own reality, by pride in self-intelligence and the desire to dominate and control others. Such things are the opposite of humility, and they effectively block the way of the riches of the spirit precisely because they appear to be enough to satisfy us. (The desire to lord it over others can always find ample reasons to justify its goals.)

The word worship, much like humility, literally means to fall or bow down, to stoop, crouch, to humbly beseech. Swedenborg writes that the essence of all worship consists in humiliation; and the highest form of worship, the highest form of such spiritual humility, is a life of useful service to the neighbor. Which brings us to Mark.

James and John ask Jesus, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you." (Does that approach to God sound a bit familiar?!_ Actually, the correspondences here are quite revealing. James and John, representing good works and compassion, plead with God for power. But missing is faith, a clear understanding of the spiritual dynamics at work, of what is required for our good intentions and efforts to bear fruit. And so he tells them, "You don't know what you're asking." Like Jesus in His humanity, and like us in our humanity, they too will drink the cup of bitterness and experience the baptism of the cross. But despite their desire, what is required to win the battle is preparation: "The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." With this somewhat enigmatic statement, the other disciples become indignant, at which point Jesus becomes a bit more explicit; he speaks of the humility born of faith.

To be great, you must be least, a servant, a slave. The use of the word slave is important here. The inner sense of the Word leads us away from a debate about the morality of Jesus' time to a more immediate and relevant concern; the image of slave is used here to indicate the relationship that exists between God and humanity, between that which is higher and that which is lower, between that which is independent, and that which is dependent.

By being a "servant" is meant here to acknowledge our place, our role, our function and use, in the larger scheme of things. It refers not to the servitude of slavery to the ego, but to the servitude of obedience to God; this kind of service is nothing more, or less, than a spiritually mature response to the reality of love. Such service, as we have said, is at the heart of worship in the New Church. And such service, such worship requires humility: an honest appraisal of our spiritual circumstances.

This all goes back to the nature of the regenerated individual, as one who is suspicious of those tendencies and attitudes which tell us our way is THE way; one who questions the appearances of the ego perspective, and makes a choice or leap or transcendent move to live from God. This is at the heart of humility. Our self-image seeks to own the good we know, and to disown, or hide, the evil we know; pride and fear are our resulting realities. Instead, the truth of humility reveals that we are vehicles, receptacles and receivers of spiritual energy, not its source. The truth reveals that we are free to choose between heaven and hell, good and evil, but unfree to do so unless we recognize that the good cannot be owned and evil cannot be avoided.

Humility is the key that makes prayer effective and forgiveness possible, that brings us into the light of truth, the power of reality, and the joy of love.


James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And He said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rules lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Reading from Swedenborg:

In the Word all things are called "servants" that are beneath and are therefore subordinate and subject to what is higher, just as those things which are of the exterior natural, or the sensuous things therein, are in respect to the interior natural; and the things of the latter also are called "servants" in respect to the rational; and consequently all things in humans both in general and in particular, and equally so whether inmost or outmost, are called "servants" relatively to the Divine, for this is supreme...Royalty represents the Lord as to the Divine truth, in respect to whom all are alike servants, whatever their condition may be; and in the Lord's kingdom or heaven they who are the greatest (that is, they who are inmost) are servants more than others, because they are in the greatest obedience, and in deeper humiliation than the rest; for these are they who are meant by the "least that shall be greatest," and by the "last that shall be first."

Music: In the Meadow
1999 Bruce DeBoer