The poet Seamus Heaney died on Friday. He was staying with a friend of ours in Cambridge one time, another Irishman, Eamon Duffy, our daughter’s godfather, who is a professor at Cambridge. Another friend of theirs was receiving an honorary doctorate, and Heaney went into town to buy a book to give her as a present. When he got back, he realised he had forgotten to buy a card and asked Eamon if he had a postcard he could have to send his best wishes with the book. When Eamon found a suitable card, Heaney asked for a pencil. Eamon offered him a pen, and Heaney said no, he wanted a pencil, so that the recipient could rub out the greeting and reuse the card. This was hardly likely as anybody in the literary world would give their eye-teeth to have a personal greeting from one of the greatest poets of our age. It was a sign of a truly humble man, and someone who had known poverty in the past. And most of the obituaries are talking about Heaney as a humble man.
Humility is one of those tricky virtues. So often is has been forced on whole groups of people such as women or the working class. Women were expected to put everyone else first, to do the menial jobs in church, to keep everyone else happy. Stories from the Bible, like the one we heard just now in the Gospel reading, have been used to put moral pressure on people to take the lowest place in church and society and keep quiet. And when humility is forced on you, its not true humility. But nor does it do any spiritual good to the people who demand your humility.
When you choose humility for yourself, it is a great virtue: when you choose to lay aside the power or status that you have for the sake of God or other people. But before you can lay it aside, you need to recognise and own the power that you have.
We see lots of examples of people who are not humble. In literature, there was Dickens’ Uriah Heap who talked incessantly about being humble, but was actually incredibly ambitious. And it’s a great subject for humour – so many jokes and sit coms are about someone who thinks more of themselves than they should and how they get knocked back. Like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping up Appearances. Or those situations where someone is trying to look good by putting down and then find that the person they are talking too really is someone significant. You get that in the film Notting Hill, when the dinner party guests are making jokes about actors and putting them down, and then discover that the Julia Roberts character is actually a film star.
And in our dealings with other people, humility is so important. Do you ever end up playing the adult version of “my dad’s bigger than your dad”? It covers everything from “my house is bigger than your house” or “my qualification is better than your qualification” to the inverted versions of “my problem is bigger than your problem”. It becomes a game, a terrible and terrifying game, playing a kind of psychological top trumps. You get sucked it, and it is so difficult to break off until someone is utterly crushed. And the only way to break it is to say “That must be lovely for you” and walk away.
We see problems with humility in church too. In the old days, clergymen often expected respect and favours simply because they were priests. Clergy would wear the collar on their days off or on trips out, just to get the added benefits. We don’t get that kind of treatment now, I can tell you, and I’m really glad for that.
And the wrong practice of humility in the church has led us into unhelpful attitudes and practices, so that we don’t expect people to say that, actually, they have done a good job. True humility means being able to lay claim to a good job done, as well as being honest about the things that have gone wrong.
Humility means being able to look at ourselves honestly, the good and the bad, and accept ourselves as we are, and present ourselves to others as we are. What you see is what you get. Humility means not making a fuss in public about the good that we have done and expecting praise. It does mean looking out for others and giving them the praise and thanks they deserve for what they have done. Humility means looking out for others, and allowing them to care for you, receiving the love and compassion that other people give to you. Humility means noticing the people around you, giving them attention and care. Nobody is too minor or insignificant to be below your radar.
There is a story about a trainee nurse whose lecturer set them a quiz one day. The student had worked hard at her studies and breezed through the questions. Till she came to the last one: “What is the name of the college cleaner?” The student was stumped. She could visualise the woman: she had dark hair and was in her fifties, but she didn’t know her name and had to leave the question blank. Another student asked if this mark would count towards the grade. “Yes”, said the lecturer, “In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘Hello’.” The student said that she never forgot that lesion. And she found that the cleaner’s name was Dorothy.