"Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers. "
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Humility and Service

by Galina Krasskova

(This article was adapted from a sermon I presented on April 26 at the Interfaith Temple in NYC.)

We’re going to talk about service and humility today. I think these two things fit together beautifully. They complement and enhance each other and contribute to building a strong, resilient, spiritual foundation. In my religious community right now, there is a great deal of tension over how to best honor and serve the Gods. Sadly, this has even led to hostility and in-fighting over what constitutes the “proper” way to go about this.  I’ve seen slander, name-calling, and even threats of violence all over something that should be bringing people together: honoring the Gods. This is neither new, nor unique to my religious community. It has probably been going on for as long as people have been engaging in devotional practice. Needless to say, this has been on my mind a lot in the past several weeks. And while part of me thinks that my community simply needs time to mature, I can’t deny that the ongoing discourse has been productive. It has brought up several issues that I think are worthy of being addressed. One of those, perhaps the most important one, is service.

We need to reclaim the idea of joyful service. I have come to believe that the whole idea of service has become tainted in our society. We no longer respect it. Think about how we treat service personnel in our mundane lives from the girl behind the drug store counter, to the waitress or waiter at lunch, to the maid who cleans your room. These people are anonymous, poorly paid, and often poorly treated. Would you want your son or daughter to grow up to work in a ‘service industry'? Probably not, and I’d ask that you think about the reason for that.

Spiritual service can be a very beautiful thing, a sacred thing, a holy thing. It provides an opportunity to open ourselves as deeply as possible (an ongoing process if ever there was one) to the Gods that we love and adore.

I believe that most people want to be good people. They want to live their lives as happily as possible, honor their Gods, and try to do the right thing. That may sound simple, but it can be really, really difficult sometimes to ferret out what that right course of action can be. We are creatures honed by our experiences. We see the world through the filter of where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what has been done to us. It can be very easy to get caught up in our own way of doing things, to believe that we’ve found the one right way to reach out to our Gods. From here, it’s just one small step away from condemning those who do so differently than we do.

My maternal grandmother was a mystic. She had visions of Christ all throughout her life, beginning when she was quite young. My aunt told me recently that growing up, her mom would tell her about these mystical experiences, in an attempt to encourage her daughter in the knowledge that their God was present in their lives and that He loved them. My aunt interpreted that to mean that God did not love her; that she had done something wrong, and was bad. I asked her why? Had my grandmother said something which indicated that? Her answer broke my heart. No, my aunt told me. She was led to that conclusion by the fact that she herself was not having visionary experiences. My aunt is a very analytical person. Her devotion is expressed through reading and study, and doing actual works like delivering communion to the sick. It was a long time before she could celebrate this method of devotion. Instead she wasted a great deal of hurt over what she did not have, neglecting what she did. Even now, I find that heart-breaking.

There is a wonderful quote by the Sufi mystic poet Rumi – and I quote it ad nauseum-- that goes ‘Let the beauty we love, be what we do: there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Think about what a profound statement that is: there are hundreds of ways to engage in devoted spiritual practices. There are hundreds of ways to love the Gods. And you know what? Not a single one is better than another. Not a single one invalidates another. It can be really hard when someone’s practices are completely different from one’s own. I think the Gods know best though. They know how we’re wired. They know what our gifts are. They know what would fulfill us and how we can best be utilized in service. At some point, we need to trust that, to trust Them to guide the process.

We are all individuals. We’re not meant to be clones of each other in our practices. If you believe that the Gods made us, surely then it follows that They cherish that diversity. It follows also then, that They cherish the rich diversity of practice and devotional means that flow from our individuality. We need to honor that, to embrace it, and yes, even celebrate it. No two people are meant to serve the Gods alike. I do so as a priest and shaman. But another may do so as a poet. Another by cleaning her ill friend’s house. Another by creating and tending a garden, another by raising children with love and respect, yet another by bringing a sense of integrity to her work in the corporate world. There are no limits save those set by the Gods themselves, which we may find through personal gnosis, the study of lore, or the contemplation of our own hearts. That one person may live their lives by being…a farmer, a doctor, or housewife while another may be a shaman is no indicator of worth. All these things are equally valued by the Gods. Yet all are radically different. I think it can often be difficult to come to terms with radical differences of perspective and of practice. How can things so dramatically different all be right? That, my friends, is the glorious paradox of spiritual life. It’s rather like global politics! There can be such beautiful strength precisely in our differences. We’re not meant to be the religious equivalent of Stepford wives. We’re meant to be passionately engaged with our Gods in whatever role They have gifted us with. Jealousy, fear, hostility…these things only serve to keep us from truly honoring both our own gifts, and the gifts the Gods have given us. They keep us from seeing how we ourselves are blessed. One of the keys, I think, to preventing these unproductive emotions from negatively impacting us is to seek humility in all we do.

There are certain words that seem to have taken on a negative caste in our modern culture: humility is one of them. Too often I’ve heard the idea of humility being dismissed as self abasement. There is this idea that we should all ‘follow our bliss’ wherever it may lead. When the goal is to develop our potential as human beings, to develop our spiritual awareness, to find the method of service that suits us best then this is indeed a good thing. Service, is really only living life in a way that engages passionately with the Gods and allows Them to do the same with us: all through the lens of our every day lives. But unexamined, unbalanced by other virtues like personal discipline, commitment, and yes, humility, all too often this idea of ‘following one’s bliss’ leads to an egotism and false pride that can prove a stunning barrier to spiritual life.  Here we find the idea that if it’s hard, if it hurts it can’t be good. Well, all healthy relationships challenge us. Our relationship with our Gods and with ourselves is no different. There will be challenges, and they will be different for each of us. Here we also find the idea that 'anything goes' and sometimes that may be true, but other times it can lead to a remarkable lack of focus, commitment and respect. It is often a difficult and delicate balance to try to maintain: I believe the Gods want people who know and value their own worth for, as my fellow priest Elizabeth Vongvisith points out: if we have no worth of our own, our devotions, offerings and prayers are likewise worthless. Discovering and developing a sense of our own beauty, as Rumi might call it, is an ongoing endeavor, part of service, part of learning how to love the Gods and moreover to be loved in return.

The Gods do love us, more than we can ever imagine. They see us, know us, and love us so very deeply. Recognizing that and allowing us to fall in love with Them in return is what spiritual life is all about.  They love us and want us to be whole and happy. The Gods and Goddesses of various traditions are not terrible, wrathful beings. Oh, Deities can be angry, but no one emotion defines how They manifest. We are children of the Gods. If we are made in the image of God, as many traditions assert, then our Gods are many-faceted, complex, ever-changing, passionate Beings indeed! In my tradition, Heathenry, not only were humans crafted by the Gods, but then the Gods came and walked among us intermarrying. Christians and Jews have a beautiful creation story wherein the hand of God carefully crafts humanity from clay and soil. Think of the care of a master craftsman, gently drawing form and life from a lump of raw material. Think of the care and love, and dedication that is needed to result in a masterpiece. We are our Gods’ masterpieces…in all our flawed and complicated glory. The ancient Egyptians as well as their modern Kemetic religionists have a God Khnum, who created our bodies on a Divine potters wheel, investing each with a beauty and individuality that is the delight of the Gods. Sometimes accepting this, how deeply we’re each cherished, can take tremendous humility.

Humility, like piety, is all about mindfulness. It’s all about knowing your own worth, and celebrating that without the need to judge or tear down others. “True humility is the ability to keep things in perspective. It means being aware that no matter how exalted you are, your feet are still made of clay.”* As French Essayist Michel de Montaigne said “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass.” True humility means accepting that we don’t know everything about any other person’s spiritual struggles. We can only know intimately about our own.  It means taking full accountability for ourselves and the harm we cause with our words, with our deeds, with the way that we choose to be in the world. It means accepting that we will fail, that spirituality is a learning process. And it means not taking ourselves too seriously. Humility is the gift that can keep us from feeling jealous or threatened at another’s spiritual blessings. Humility is the key that can lead us to gratitude for the gifts that we ourselves have been given; and I think it’s important to develop some sort of gratitude practice. What are you grateful for? What blessings move you to tears? It can be as simple as our ability to draw breath but it’s important to sincerely give thanks. This is how we grow in joy: through the practice of humble mindfulness.

 How do we encourage this virtue of  humility in our hearts? Well, for starters, we all, myself included, need to worry less about how our neighbors are honoring their Gods and instead look to the development of our own hearts. What is right for us? What do our Gods want for us?  Let’s not make a show of devotion for the sake of impressing other people with our holiness. It can be hard, when we’re feeling insecure, or when we want so deeply to be loved and accepted and acknowledged. We all want to be recognized for who we are and the good things we do. We all want to be special. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think we have to realize though that to our Gods, we are all of those things. There’s no need to demonstrate it egregiously. Let humility guard us against jealousy. Let us not look at someone else’s way of honoring, loving, and serving their Gods but pay attention to our own. We each have our gifts and our specialties. One person may be a priest and one person a parent but we’re all called to service and it is all valued.  It’s about living the life we are meant to live with engagement, mindfulness, and heart-filled devotion. We’re not less valuable to our Gods because we do one thing or another. You are not less valuable than I am because I’m up here preaching and you are not. We’re valuable. We’re loved. There’s no need to get into a pissing contest over who is more holy.

I fight with this sometimes, especially when my work is challenged within my own religious community. It’s hard not to become defensive, not to feel that I have to validate what I do. I have to remind myself that it’s not a question of other people being more intrinsically worthy than I am. It’s about what the gods want and what other people need, which may include things that my friends cannot provide for themselves, but which I can.* Or may include things my friends can provide for me that I could not on my own.  And I have to remember that the rewards I get from the service I give and the shape of my own devotion are just as satisfying to me as the rewards my friends get from their devotion and service are to them. Humility, for me, is about valuing myself and my work for what it is rather than what it is not.*

Recognizing that can lead to real joy, in one’s love and devotion to the Gods and spirits, and in sharing that joy with others. I don’t mean trying to get others to worship as you do, but in allowing the joy of devotion to guide your every interaction. We carry our gods in our skin, in our blood, in our breath: in every word, every deed, every single interaction. We have the potential to allow that indwelling connection to the Divine to guide every encounter. It takes practice. But that’s what devotion is all about: living mindfully with humility, with joy.

I’ll close by saying that I don’t necessarily believe humility’s antithesis is pride or even arrogance. I believe it to be entitlement or maybe complacency. Let us pray, every day to be delivered from these two things: complacency and entitlement.

(Many thanks to Elizabeth Vongvisith for her article on Humility, which can be found at http://twilightandfire.wordpress.com/. I have stolen shamelessly from it everywhere there is an asterisk. It goes without saying that I did so with her full knowledge and permission).

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