IT WAS reportedly Lord Longford who claimed to have “published a small book on Humility . . . a pioneering work which has not, to my knowledge, been superseded”. The dangers of writing about humility are obvious, as the author Sam Wells acknowledges. Even if I’m not wholly convinced by the claim that, here, Wells is principally addressing himself, the quality of the book means that that quickly ceases to matter.
The author begins: “This is a short book but it may not turn out to be a quick read.” It distils familiar ideas in a deceptively simple way that makes them startlingly fresh; often, I found myself having to go back and re-read a passage that had suddenly illuminated something I had thought I understood in a new light. And it pares them back to show them as part of a coherent whole: this is joined-up Christianity.
The book is based on Desiderata, the prose poem popular in the Seventies which begins “Go placidly amid the noise and haste.” Supposedly “found in Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, dated 1692” (the year of the church’s foundation), it was actually written by an American lawyer, Max Ehrmann, in 1927.
Wells takes eight exhortations inspired by the poem — Be Humble, Be Grateful, Be Your Own Size, Be Gentle, Be a Person of Praise, Be Faithful, Be One Body, Be a Blessing — and builds a short chapter around each. He identifies contemporary problems: for instance, our infinite capacity to “hide the reality of dependence [which] erodes our awareness of our limitation and mortality into a fantasy of unencumbered reward”. Ironically, we are aided and abetted in this delusion by our dependence — on mobile phones and credit cards.
What gets lost, Wells suggests, is gratitude: “the moment we turn from seeing dependence as a burden and begin to see it as a gift”. And utter dependence is the deathbed, which is “the name for the moment when we stop trying to re-narrate the story of our lives as ones in which we accumulate so much talent, accomplishment, charm, skill, wit, and luck that we ultimately dodge mortality and get out of life alive. . . Thus the deathbed is where life begins. Not life as existence, or extent; but life as gift, as gratitude, as grace: as a walk of humility.”
The categorisations are sometimes surprising: “Be Gentle” concludes that gentleness is “a salad” of self-control, patience, and kindness; and cautions against the danger of rushing to judgement, or always arrogantly assuming that we should intervene because we know best. It also, however, rejects that as an excuse for inaction, advocating instead presence and attention, leading to the possibility of participation and partnership.
The author, the Revd Dr Samuel Wells: theologian, broadcaster, and writer. He is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London.
“Be Your Own Size” is a reflection on wisdom — on who we are, individually and corporately: “Human beings are junior members of a team to which most of us don’t even realise we belong.” Wells reminds us of our size, and our proper (and infinitesimal) place in the universe, while simultaneously demonstrating that we are infinitely precious to God. So, relearning our place is not deflating or humiliating, but liberating, as we look at our surroundings and the miracle of our existence with new eyes, and are filled with awe.
A ten-line summary of Jesus’s life and work helped me to understand it as never before; the relationship between scripture and the sacraments is shown as part of a seamless whole, tracing the story of the covenant through the lives of individuals. “To be part of such a story is to discover what it means for your identity to be a gift, for your destiny to be beyond existence, for your past no longer to be a prison, and for the future to be your friend.”
“Be Faithful” includes the injunction to “befriend yourself: you are the first among the neighbo(u)rs you are called to serve”; and the critical importance — especially now — of experiencing life outside our own bubble: “Don’t assume your role is immediately to change the other person’s reality . . . seek the interaction for your own sake.”
The author holds up a mirror to our expectations in a way that reflects them back at us with a different perspective; so, discipline is “fundamental to flourishing”, but it is “always fundamentally saying a comprehensive yes, not just saying an arbitrary no”.
This is not soft soap. It includes some very sharp observations, including warning of the danger that “‘God’ becomes no more than the clear blue water advocates put between themselves and those they wish to regard as beneath them.” And “Be One Body” looks at what it means to be Church in a way that makes clear why it is both so exasperating and so (potentially) wonderful.
The underlying theme is that nothing is “by chance or accident. It is blessing,” and the book itself is a blessing of the sort that it aims to awake us to. My irritation at its American spellings — “marvelous”, “fiber”, “modeling”, “theater”, “honored”, “endeavor”. . . : the list is a long one, and (considering the battle I’ve just had with my spellcheck to deliberately misspell those words) quite an achievement — simply serves to illustrate how much I’m in need of the grace and humility that it advocates.
Caroline Chartres is a contributing editor to the Church Times.
Walk Humbly: Encouragements for living, working, and being by Samuel Wells (Books, 5 July) is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-78622-150-6.
WALK HUMBLY — SOME QUESTIONS
- “We are not essential. We are simply existential.” This statement is the starting point for much of Samuel Wells’s advice. Why is it so significant for him?
- How can we detach our aspirations from a wish for acknowledgement or recognition, do you think?
- Wells suggests that the deathbed is “where life begins”. How might we find the sort of deathbed gratitude which he describes earlier in our lives?
- Does the suggestion “be gentle” imply that we should not intervene when we observe injustice? How might we intervene in a “gentle” way?
- Wells relates being “your own size” to understanding our place in (and reliance on) the wider ecosystem. Do you think our societies struggle with this; and, if so, why?
- For Wells, the “biggest danger of mission is that it becomes a form of self-assertion and self-promotion”. How can we advocate something that we believe in while still respecting other people’s views?
- Wells suggests we should seek out interaction with those with different experiences for our own sake, not theirs. Why is this?
- How, for Wells, does discipline relate to faithfulness?
- What does Wells mean when he asks us to “be church”?
- Wells writes that he hopes people might feel as though they have prayed after finishing the book. How did you feel? Did it leave you with questions of your own?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 December, we will print extra information about our next book Circe by Madeline Miller. It is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-40889-004-2.
Daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe grows up among the divinities but is a lesser goddess, apparently neither powerful nor beautiful. Finding herself rejected by her fellow deities, Circe instead approaches the world of mortals for company. In so doing she discovers witchcraft, and is subsequently exiled to the island of Aiaia, where many adventures await her. In Circe, Madeline Miller presents a feminist reworking of the story of the mythological sorceress met in The Odyssey. In Homer’s epic, Circe appears in two books; Miller elevates her to become a fully-fledged, three-dimensional protagonist. Odysseus, meanwhile, appears in just two chapters.
Born in 1978, Madeline Miller grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. Captivated by Homer since first hearing lines from The Iliad at the age of five, she studied Classics at Brown University, and completed further study at the Universities of Chicago and Yale. Her own published writing focuses on the modern reworkings of classical texts. Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. It had taken her ten years to write. Her second, Circe, was a number-one New York Times bestseller. Outside writing, she teaches and tutors Classics to high-school students.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
January: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
February: Humans by Matt Haig