Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared.” –Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
There is a class at Harvard in which all MDiv students (those earning degrees in preparation for ministry) must recount their “spiritual autobiography” for those in the class. I’m told this process of vulnerable sharing, listening, and exchanging feedback can take many class sessions. Yesterday a friend told me about his recent experience of presenting his autobiography, wherein he admitted to his classmates that he is unsure about whether ordained ministry is actually what he pursue upon the completion of his degree.
“Well, would that ministry utilize your gifts?” they responded, “What are your gifts?”
My friend said he hesitated in his response. He felt uncomfortable claiming the (many, really extraordinary) gifts that he possesses. He said this felt out of character, and counter-cultural to both his faith community and the decorum of where he was raised.
Although the two of us come from different hometowns and denominational traditions, I imagine myself responding similarly was I placed in his position. I, too, experience the tension between a sense of real, genuine humility, on one hand, and the importance of recognizing one’s skills for discernment and effective ministry, on the other.
Recently, I have not only been confronted with this tension in my friend’s story, but also in the writing of Teresa of Avila. The professor who assigned her book, The Interior Castle, for this week’s reading warned the class: “Teresa has an extreme tendency toward self-deprecation—it can be quite disturbing, but just push through!” Sure enough, within the first few pages of the book she had already made it quite clear to the reader that she, herself, is useless, and only writes out of obedience to God and her monastic order.
As I have read on, however, it has become clear that Teresa was blessed with extraordinary gifts, as a mystic and as a communicator of those experiences for the betterment of others. Even as she communicated an extreme, self-deprecating humility, she must have written out of an undeniable knowledge of her giftedness. This is evident in one of her rather ironic warnings against the danger of a false sense of self-knowledge:
If we are always fixed on our earthly misery, the stream will never flow free from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. I would be looking to see if I’m being watched or not; if by taking this path things will turn out badly for me; whether it might be pride to dare to begin a certain work; whether it would be good for a person so miserable to engage in something so lofty as prayer; whether I might be judged better than others if I don’t follow the path they all do. I’d be thinking that extremes are not good, even in the practice of virtue; that, since I am such a sinner, I might be a greater fall; that perhaps I would not advance and would do harm to good people; that someone like myself has no need of special things…Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His Saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make once based and cowardly.
Like Teresa, I realize that every person is blessed with unique gifts, and that I should celebrate this by sharing my gifts with others rather than letting fear and false humilities get in the way. The kind of humility that Teresa implores (perhaps in a self-directed message!) is a humility that does not deny giftedness. It acknowledges God, and it acknowledges the giftedness of others, but it does not prevent one from the sense of peace and joy that comes with doing what one is really good at!
How can I foster this sort of life-giving humility? How can I let go of the false, fear-inducing humility that so easily distracts me from my gifts? And how can I help others do the same?