The transition from Christmas to Ordinary Time takes place for me during a few days in Walsingham. The shrine and village are both very quiet, and I can linger alone in the little Slipper Chapel, surely one of the most atmospheric and intimate places to pray in the whole of England, as the winter’s light fades.
I walk the Holy Mile. Silence fills the cold air. All around the trees form bare, fretted silhouettes against the dying light and brown furrows comb the rich, dark loam of the earth across the hillsides.
I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that, with the lengthening of the evenings already perceptible, the appearance of the empty fields takes on a new significance. They are no longer at the end of a season, a year; they are waiting the beginning of a new one.
The difference pivots between looking back and forward, like the two-faced Roman god Janus, who gave his name to their month. To look forward, then, is to sense the the vast energy of life which the dormant, waiting fields signify, the mystery of a creation which is itself thus humbled every year, subjected to apparent death, the germination of hope.
St James to urges the Christian to “Be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Think of the farmer who waits for the precious fruits of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain” (James 5:7-8). So it is patience and its sister virtue, humility, which I feel inspired to pray for as I spend these few days in Our Lady’s home. The Latin word for the earth, humus, gives us “humility” in English. This, and seeing the ploughed fields, the earth waiting, cradling something yet to be revealed, affords an insight into the virtue and its implicit sense of waiting on the Lord for who alone gives the growth and gives it in his own season.
Humility leads always back to the ground of being, to the truth which we will proclaim in the next great liturgical season, that I am, in fact, dust, humus. I was made from it and will return to it, yet even where it seems fallow and inert God can fructify it with his Spirit. There may be progress in the spiritual life, but it is a farmer’s progress: a harvest is given for a particular season, and then once more the work of preparing the ground and waiting begins.
Many saints stress humility as the fundamental virtue of the Christian. Just as it was pride which made angels into demons, says St Augustine, it is humility which makes men into angels. St Bonaventure echoes this, saying that just as pride is the origin of all sin, humility is the origin of all virtue. It is not the greatness of a soul which makes God love it, says St John of the Cross, but the greatness of the soul’s humility. It occurs to me that humility in the spiritual life is not, as we are inclined to think, a kind of reckoning of my gifts or progress according to a scale which always relegates me to the bottom. Nor is it to do with lamenting failure or downplaying progress. It is more fundamentally the willingness to accept how God wants me to be according to season of his grace, just as nature sometimes wants the fields to be empty and bare as the preparation for growth.
My soul is like the wintery field, empty, unless the biosphere of grace interacts with it, fructifies it. I can use activities – prayer and the practice of virtue – to prepare the soil for God’s grace. But I must not imagine that my activity is what gives the growth. And when that activity is tough, apparently fruitless, or just in suspension, humility believes that there is still a process of growth in this passivity, even in the winter frosts which break down the loam and kill disease.
Humility is the quality of being able to be empty but faithful to the conviction that God will give the early and late rain if I wait. Humility sees the empty field and looks forward, to him who gives the harvest. It does not compare itself to others but to the identity that is deep within: the knowledge that, through the goodness of God, I will always be able to become better than I am now, through a growth cycle I do not control.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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