Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, that for years he’s prayed for “one good humiliation a day.” He continues, “[A]nd then I must watch my reaction to it.” Rohr isn’t speaking of some masochistic desire for insult or injury, no 50 shades of gray implications here, but rather of a necessary exercise in the practice of an authentic life. The context is being real about oneself instead of trapped in the delusions of “any idealized role or self-image.” The word “humiliation” is built from the word “humble” whose root meaning is close to the ground, of the humus or earth. Human, that is. True to what one is.
I couldn’t help shaking my head in some amusement, though, that Rohr would ask for a daily dose of this. I remarked on it to someone close to me: “Who needs to ask? I’m a writer,” as if that was explanation enough. For a writer, there’s the work itself, and there’s the person who writes it, but there’s also a writer-persona that emerges, created in part by the work but also by the public role a writer has to take on at certain points. Persona is inevitable and not necessarily false either, I would argue, but how very quickly it can fill up with the ideals and hopes of the hungry self or the ideals and hopes of others, how quickly it can falsify. Great reviews and literary events may buttress it; less than great of the same will topple it without effort.
Let me speak, for example, of the “reading,” fraught with potential — or actual — non-attendance. As in one such event I was part of, the authors basically reading to each other and the relatives they managed to drag along, the entire hour floating on an undercurrent of apology by both writers and organizers that they weren’t Enough to bring out the people! I once heard Julia Spicher Kasdorf read the title poem in her Poetry in America and I know the writers in the room were chuckling with nervous recognition as she read. The poem tells of the empty chairs at a poetry reading. Only one person, in fact, showed up. A poem comes out of it, yes, and a truth spoken by that one attendee that might be considered more than adequate compensation, at least in retrospect, but believe me, the humiliation comes first.
Since reading the Rohr sentence above, I’ve become more mindful of “humiliations,” in many cases not face-reddening embarrassments as much as what one notices backwards via one’s defensiveness or a critical or hurt reaction. Let me speak, for example, of another role of mine, that of mother, where a subtle rejoinder recently suggested an adult child did not need — not any more — that instinctive but now essentially careless bit of “mothering” I’d offered and just like that the lofty Mother balloon deflated to the earth, where the real person in real relationships with her children skips along but sometimes stumbles.
I’m not so far, I confess, as to ask for the daily undoing. Rohr says it’s the only way he can see his “shadows,” for “‘spiritual leader’ or ‘professional religious person’ is such a dangerous and ego-inflating self-image.” I do pray though for daily mindfulness about those that arrive unbidden, often enough it seems to me. And I’m finding myself more grateful than I expected to be when they do. There’s a paradoxical lightness in the humus of the true self. And there too the Spirit dwells as companion and consolation.
The coda to Rohr’s wise little book is a commentary on Thomas Merton’s poem, “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple.” I’ll coda my blog with the middle stanza of this wonderful poem.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.