In Praise of Humble Things

Humility gets talked about a lot this time of year. It usually gets raised in counterpoint to personal pride, but that is a baggy use of the term that obscures at least as much as it reveals. Treated as a counter to personal pride, makes humility itself something personal. Humility acquires power and scope when we consider it as a form of understanding, as a kind of Spinozist virtue that appreciates the limited nature of beings in creation. This sort of humility returns to the one who possesses it, transforming limitation into a sense of place. To be one of the many limited things, is to a be a thing that finds its place within these things.

Humility gives force to spiritual acts in two distinct ways. Humility invokes the totality of creation because the acceptance of one’s place affirms and invites the totality into the place. The withdrawal of humility also gives spirits that would manifest space to do so. When we are ever-expanding our reach in the material world, we are filling the space through which we reach with ourselves, providing spirit with little through which they can manifest.

The I Ching once advised me that when rites become ornate, they lose their tie to spirit. The ornateness of a rite develops as a means to make visible a subtle spiritual influence, to make it manifest to those who might not be able to see it. That replaces presence with representations of presence and for those without the sense of spirit’s subtlety, the display itself becomes the measure of spirit. Spectacle replaces miracle as rite degrades into theater as the mania to communicate a truth occludes the truth itself.

As we progress to the more practical level, humility becomes an acknowledgment that great spiritual force can be present in things that appear minor and small to our materialistic expectations; a small plant pushing up between the cracks in the sidewalk might open the door to the heavens and allow the stars to stir fire within our heads or the broken deer bones beside the road may become the kernel for a wordless prayer. There are times when the presence of a spirit is well-suited by its association with a magnificent temple or mountain, but far more often spiritual potency is incommensurate with its physical vehicles. To expect commensurability is to commit to spiritual blindness.

A painting of a monstrous scaly humanoid figure holding a bowl-like object, framed by curtains and stars.
William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Humble Things

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