The art of virtue: When ambition yields to humility

I’ve wanted to post the featured photo and the photo below this paragraph for a while now as they show how illumination of a child and mama in just the right light produces a magical effect. Both of the photos yielded a classical painting effect in their lighting, and I thoroughly enjoyed developing them. Additionally, the subject matter seemed to have universal appeal: Babies (and their mothers with them) carry a kind of photogenic quality that perennially resists criticism.

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But I didn’t want to stop at the artistic component of the photos. Lately, as the daily routine of getting Leo to sleep at night becomes our norm, there’s something else more purposeful in these photos that is essential to the spiritual life of married persons.

Sleep is a better addiction than ambition

A decade ago I had a deep urge to do everything I could to protect human rights for oppressed persons. I hoped that by using some of my not-too-flashy talents and gifts to make a name for myself so to devote full-time effort towards protecting human dignity. Having audiences of dozens or hundreds of people hanging on to every spoken word, insight or joke from one of my presentations was an experience more addictive than adrenaline rushes, sugar spikes, or even sin, and not because I craved being the center of attention or anything reproachful (I hope!). Rather, it was just nice having a purpose.

I still contemplate daily the work I will do in that field. But for now, all I can often stare at is my softly lit baby.

And the featured photo expresses my new purpose. At night, I no longer pace until my carpet piles are flattened following a session of focused mental rehearsal for an upcoming talk that I’ve booked. These nights, after the milk bottle slips from Leo’s lips and the warm, soft lighting from my tray ceiling gives the room a sleepy glow, I eagerly await for that comforting moment when Leo’s eyes shut and pinch off that last glint of light that brilliantly reflects from his dark irises. Daddy wants to follow suit and on certain nights hopes to beat baby there. (As I’ve told the wife lately, imagine how many more babies would be made if they had a magical power that could lull us to sleep instead of the other way around. I’d put an order with the wife for hundreds of them. And then I’d brace for a jab to my chin.)

My nighttime reality is an hour of fussiness and howling cries that makes my eardrums physically flutter. (In a way, there’s no prettier song in the world… in a way…) Because of that, getting him to sleep becomes my urgent need, my to-be-sane-tomorrow need and my wow-it’s-already-3 a.m. need. Where do I fit my priorities of being a superhero world-changing activist in this chaos-come-lately routine?

I don’t. My life is now Mr. Caretaker, Daddy Nurse, and Superhero Spit-up Soaker.

No greater gift than virtue

I don’t aim to only give a dramatic retelling of a typical night for a typical parent. I’ve not intended to share a little morality tale of how we’ll all have to sacrifice our dreams for the exigencies of our daily burdens, hoping we’ll find redemption in it.

This briefest among brief peeks at marriage spirituality is more than that. During those sleepless moments a multitude of spiritual themes floods my mind. I reflect on numerous things: on culture wars, and fighting them with artistic family culture; on metanoias founded on the little moments of redemptive suffering; on the nature of infused love personified in father-son interaction; on the likeness of grace to light; and most importantly on the visitation of heroic virtue in unexpected moments. Marriage spirituality is my ordinary mode of seeing now. The world presents itself to me in light of these moments of grace.

Eventually, we will touch on many of those themes that I consider as baby falls asleep. The photos, however, most impacted me with the last theme on the list: that of virtue. What was the virtue?

An honest humility.

Putting Leo to sleep is soaked with humility. I say it is ‘honest’ because this kind of humility isn’t the kind I can will into my soul. The very fact of baby means that a greater reality is thrust upon me regardless of my will where duties surpass desires. I’ve been subsumed into a plan larger than myself. And most importantly, I’ve been made low. I’m no longer a man who prioritizes something as silly as ‘making a name for myself’.

Finding and dwelling in honest humility in a proud world like our own is about as rare as biblical conversions on the road to Damascus. The desire for humility in many Christians is strong. The work towards humility is equally so. The actual obtaining of it—that’s far different and rarer. Because it is so rare, it is among the most valuable of things.

This may not seem like much. I mean, I’m just falling asleep with my baby. But that’s wrong: A rare form of virtue is trying to sneak its way into my soul. No greater spiritual event could happen to me on a daily basis. This kid saves me from me, and I didn’t ever feel so lost before he came.

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Okay, it’s not really all about virtue and conversion and all that heavenly stuff. These smiles can sometimes be as good as heavenly consolations, if you ask me.

Honest virtue is not of earthly origin

It’s not that I actually possess this honest and true humility, by the way. I likely possess nothing of it, even. Instead, it knocks on my door every night as Leo’s eyes close. Any moment when humility wants to enter into my soul, I have to greet it with open arms. I eagerly urge it, if not beg it, to graft onto my soul—more eagerly than pre-Paul Saul hoping get his sight back. Virtue like this is not something I can possess: true humility can only possess me.

What it does from there is not based on my initiative, for certain. But I know my marriage spirituality so earnestly desires some portion of it day by day, more so sometimes than a man can himself consciously know. The inexpressible groaning of the Spirit in my soul might as well solely seek humility these days. And in that longing is a strange mingling of virtue and man that causes conversion, which is utterly delightful, being the virtue beggar that I am.

So whenever even a token amount of humility knocks on the door of my heart, my soul appears to receive it the same way a man stranded in an arid desert would receive a drop of water. Or better yet, these small conversions are like the spiritual version of soldiers malnourished by their captors during war—if you give these soldiers too much food once they’re liberated, they will go into a kind of shock. You must hand them small portions for them to re-acclimate to a normal diet. My pride-sick spirit is the same way; it can only take in scraps and morsels at a time, with God as a physician carefully prescribing the safe amount.

I was being primed for this from day one of my bold new life with baby: When Leo arrived, I asked myself, “Why did I have to wait so long for this child? All my time prior to this seems so little, so petty, so wasteful.” This new view of myself was God’s way of putting me on the edge of a plateau, staring into a vast canyon, to make me realize how puny was everything I thought important in life. Humility has a not so humble way of making itself known; it overwhelms us with our littleness.

I rather like that about it.

 

Next time, we’ll talk about the wider social implications of all of this. This is more than just a story about a baby falling asleep.

About the post

Baby thoughts, Hidden grace, Virtue

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