‘In the time of any common plague or sickness’: a reflection on humility

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In our Chapel at Christ’s Hospital, we use the Book of Common Prayer for the recitation of the Offices. When it was clear that we were heading towards a pandemic, I flicked through the Prayers and Thanksgivings to see if I could find anything appropriate and I came across this prayer, to be used ‘in the time of any common Plague or Sickness’:

ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We used it twice a day until the school was closed and I have continued to recite it since.

In recent days, I have been reflecting on the circumstances under which this prayer was composed. Being part of the Book of Common Prayer means that it was written no later than the middle of the 17th century and possibly much earlier, at a time when plague and common sickness were, well pretty common and cures non-existent. Clearly, Cranmer and other contributors thought it necessary to include such a prayer.

What struck me about this prayer is that it is full of humility; it gives a sense that the people of the time knew that they could do nothing but throw themselves on the mercy of God: ‘Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality…’

The authors of Common Worship could not have imagined that we would need such a prayer in our own time.

Yet the Coronavirus pandemic has truly humbled us. A tiny, invisible virus is wreaking havoc across the world: countless people are sick, far too many are dying, the economy is struggling, livelihoods have been lost and humanity has been forced to hide behind locked doors.

This word humble is interesting. We often think of it in a negative way, as if being humble is doing ourselves down, but the word has its origins in the Latin for humus – not the stuff that posh people have with avocado and sourdough bread – it means earth or ground. It reminds us of the creation poem in Genesis, which tells of how God created Adam from the humus; indeed Adam is the Hebrew equivalent of humus.

Humility is about having a healthy sense of our own frailty and we are certainly learning that now as a human race. Humility is literally the thing that keeps us grounded, that brings us back down to earth, sometimes with a painful bump.

That’s a really good and important thing: Coronavirus has perhaps made us realise that we might have been getting above ourselves as a human race, but we all, as individuals, need to be humble now and again: perhaps we’ve thought of ourselves as better or as more deserving of something than someone else; perhaps we’ve been slow to listen and quick to jump in with our much more superior viewpoint; perhaps we’ve been too proud to accept criticism or to ask for help; perhaps we’ve been slow to admit that we might be wrong about a person or a situation.

But there’s even deeper meaning in this word humus: as the gardeners amongst you will know, it is the organic matter in soil, the rich stuff that provides nutrients for plants to grow and flourish. Being humble is also about returning to our true selves to find the humus, the rich ground, deep within our being and when we come back to our true selves, it is from this place that wonderful things can grow. The question is: what is the thing that can enable us to be humble, to stay grounded, to cultivate our humus?

Love.

Being truly humble springs from a deep understanding that we are loved and that we can remain rooted, grounded in that love. We don’t need to pretend to be anything more than we are because who we are is beloved. And in being our true selves, we can give to the world the gifts that only we can bring.

When and how have we wandered away from the humus, the sure ground of our true selves and what led us away? What wonderful things might grow in the humus, the rich soil of our being, for the benefit of a world that has been truly humbled?


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