Nestled at the edge of a maple-lined gully in our upper pasture is a moldering old relic of rusty tie rods, leaf springs and gears. Like many Vermont hill farms, ours has its own forgotten monuments of ages past; this truck– once gleaming and new–now sits in picturesque obscurity, lonely in its field. Hiking past it, I’m always reminded, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes. . . .”
Humility as a virtue often seems to have suffered a similar fate in our current culture, something quaint and nostalgic from a bygone era, no longer useful and decidedly decrepit. But Lent is a season for remembering we are all nothing but ashes, dust, and rust. And however loud our current arrogance and the certainty of our self-importance, none of us lives forever.
There are important messages for us in the lowliest of substances created by decay. Humus is Latin for “soil”– a complex mixture of decayed organic material, minerals (including rust), and life… a vast interdependent web of microorganisms, which despite all human attempts to synthesize, is a gift we can but humbly nurture and husband. As poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry puts it, “All creatures die into it, and they live by it. . . .” What falls off the trees of seasons past becomes the seedbed of future generations. “Past life lives in the living,” Berry writes.
Out of that same Latin word humus comes “humility” (lowly). Humility, taught Bernard of Clairvaux, is knowing the truth about oneself. To be humble is to empty oneself of false pride, to give credit where credit is ultimately due. It is to know that we who are created out of the dust of the universe are every moment sustained in existence by God’s free gift of love and not by our own will, a love so profound that Christ “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:20
Saint John’s, Randolph