Updated: Apr 28, 2021
"Oh, no! I'm a very umble person. I am well aware that I am the umblest person going…, "let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in an umble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father's former calling was umble; he was a sexton."
The Franciscans have three ‘notes’, three qualities if you like which mark out the follower attempting to live a Christ-centred life. One of these is humility. And this Principle asks me in humility to take ‘the lowest place when asked’ but, (double whammy here) on the other hand to take on work I don’t feel able to do, but ‘confidently attempt it in the power that is make perfect in weakness.’
Okay. This is something of a puzzle. If I insist I am humble, I’m not really. I’m puffing out my chest thinking I’ve got this covered and mentally ticking off another objective on my Franciscan to-do list.
It’s not about that.
And if I cower in the corner, flagellating myself (metaphorically) with birch twigs and existing on a diet of bread and water and no EastEnders for a fortnight, in the mistaken belief that I’m on the right track, I’m not. Am I?
Because it’s not about that either.
So how to be humble without saying you’re humble? How to not talk about your achievements, your gifts, your talents without hiding them under that proverbial bushel and not using them. That bushel must have so much stacked underneath it by now with so many Christians not wanting to show off, there can’t be much room left.
Let’s turn to the dictionary. (Maybe I should say the Bible, but the dictionary’s a bit shorter).
The first dictionary I consult says that humility is, ‘not proud or not believing that you are important,’ which is a bit confusing when I grew up being told I was a child of the King. I didn’t understand why we lived in a two-bedroom house on a council estate and not in a palace, although I was reliably told our palace was in heaven. It would have been nice to have it down here and have a bit more room to play, I thought somewhat rebelliously.
The second tells me it’s not being 'arrogant or assertive.’
That’s more like it. Everyone knows it’s not good – or Christian to be arrogant. Now we’re getting somewhere. Being arrogant suggests someone who will cut you up at the lights or refuse to wear a mask in these turbo charged sensitive times, just because you know your rights. But being assertive is more of a problem though. Sometimes I just have to be assertive – for example when the café fails to deliver my grand-daughter’s sausage and chips after half an hour. There’s only so much patience you can be expected to have when you’re two.
When I was growing up, I was taught naturally that my place in the church was to be humble, simply by the fact of my gender. As a girl, I had to defer to the men, cover my head and dress modestly so as not to incite them to lust, and accept that I would always come second in the pecking order.
I am about ten and hovering at the back of church after our meeting. My uncle is talking to the visiting minister, a large man in a shiny black suit clutching a leather-bound Bible. I can’t help overhearing.
‘Barbara came again today,’ remarks my uncle. ‘She looks the epitome of perfect feminine grace. I hope she marries, t’would be a pity to waste such beauty on something as pedestrian and uncompelling as a career.’
‘A woman’s place is in the home,’ replies the minister. ‘It’s her job to be humble and act as a helpmate to her husband.’
My uncle agrees. ‘That’s the way it should be.’ He shakes his head sadly. ‘But so many women refuse to be obedient to the Word.’
That was how girls in fundamentalist Sixties churches were taught to be humble. And this wasn’t humility.
It was humiliation.
I was put in mind of real humility, when pondering this Principle, by thinking about my daughter. She is a hugely feisty, fiercely intelligent, confident, passionate, committed, beautiful young woman, a hugely successful professional musician with a string of international accolades to her name, one of the best recorder players of her generation. (I’m her mum, I’m allowed to say things like that.) When she was still a conservatoire student, emboldened by her encouragement, I dug out my old recorder and joined the local group. On her next visit home, I suggested she join us. She slipped into the ranks of the descants and played along, oblivious to the incredulous glances around her. The conductor soon asked her to play solo. She came clean in the coffee break, but only because she was asked.
Someone in the Third Order said to me the other day that we can make it all so complicated. And as I wrestle with how to be humble, I think this is one prime suspect to overthink. If I insist, like Uriah Heep that I’m a ‘very ‘umble' person,’ it’s likely I’m not. And if I trumpet my abilities from the rooftops, that’s equally not ‘umble'.
I think I’ll just slip in the back row of the descants and play.