WRITING a book on humility has obvious pitfalls. There is a story that the late Lord Longford, the well-known campaigner for prison reform, went into Hatchards in Piccadilly to ask why his latest book (Humility) was not on display in the front window. Sam Wells avoids such hubris by explaining in his preface why he writes with such an uncompromisingly direct voice in Walk Humbly. In telling us to “be your own size” or “be a person of praise”, he is using a similar form to Max Ehrmann’s prose poem Desiderata (“Go placidly . . .”), but inspired more by the works of Thomas Traherne. He is also addressing himself.
I read this book initially in little more than an hour. I re-read it in two hours. You find more depth with better acquaintance — as we do with people we know, and with God. It begins with an exposition of the difference between what abides for ever (essence) and what lasts for only a limited period (existence). The miracle of our lives is that essence brought existence into being, but had no need to do so.
If that inspires humility in us, then Wells drives the point home with a beautiful chapter on why we should be grateful. Our dependence on others whom we have never seen and will never meet is illustrated by a reflection on our daily morning routines. The cotton in our bed-sheets, the soap and toothpaste we use, the breakfast cereal we eat, the tea we drink — all reach us as the result of the work of many others, some in conditions that we may not wish to contemplate.
Such illustrations temper the abstractions, and give this book life. If it ever begins to feel like a sophisticated volume of self-help, this is exploded when the incarnational theology that underlies Walk Humbly becomes crystal clear.
In ten pages in Chapter 5, Sam Wells provides a persuasive apologetic for our times, which is fleshed out in the remainder of the book. At its conclusion, there is a series of “wonderings”, deliberately not questions, but reflections, all beginning with “I wonder . . .”. It is like a written form of Godly Play. The playfulness of the author’s writing is on full display.
Wells is one of the greatest gifts to the Church of England at the present time. I wonder whether the Church of England knows what a treasure it possesses in the present Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.
Walk Humbly: Encouragements to living, working and being
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70