Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Humility (Dom Jean LeClercq Becomes a Plumber) The "Faith Matters" column in the current Christian Century is written by Carol Zaleski and concerns humility. She first points us to George Herbert's poem "Humilitie" and then shares a memorable anecdote: ... Humility's job is not to crown the virtues but to serve them and infuse them with the spirit of the beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek"). Always taking the lower place, humility is unskilled in public relations. Hence the rumor persists of a disreputable liaison between humility and obsequiousness. Strange rumor indeed, since genuine humility is difficult to fake. One quickly sees through the mock-humility of Shakespeare's Gloucester or Dickens's Uriah Heep. Nor is the self-abnegation that turns wounded girls into cutters and anorexics a friend of true humility. Humiliation is an affliction; humility is a gift. Genuine humility orders the soul, bestowing clarity, calmness and competence. "He is humble," writes Walter Hilton, "that truly knows himself as he is." The best advertisement for humility, the best way to set the record straight, is to meet a saint or a saint-in-progress; and the best way to find one—at the grocery store, in the pew, in the monastic cloister or in line at the post office—is to smell out humility. We all know that smell. We may even take it for granted when it graces our friends and neighbors. Occasionally, though, it takes a startling form, as my husband and I discovered many years ago. We had just begun a nine-month sojourn in a studio apartment in Paris, where I was working on my dissertation. Early one morning my husband answered a knock at the door, thinking it might be the plumber our landlady had promised to send to fix the heating system. As I emerged from the bathroom I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: Dom Jean Leclercq, the famous Benedictine medievalist, was crouching alongside my husband, peering at the pipes and trying to be helpful. He had received a letter of inquiry from me and decided to answer it in person. Here was a world-class scholar, a legend in his own lifetime, the most famous living monk next to Thomas Merton—and my husband took him for a plumber! The embarrassment faded, however, as soon as it became clear that Jean Leclercq was perfectly comfortable being taken for a plumber, perfectly willing to fix our pipes if he could, perfectly willing to sit in our homely surroundings, share a baguette and discuss 12th-century thought. This is not the way distinguished medievalists, generally speaking, comport themselves with their inferiors. But it is the most characteristic of monastic traits.