Meditation

Not too much, not too little: The Humility of Esther and the Arrogance of the King

As I continue my week's focus on Humility, I started a reading on the book of Esther.  There are many ways to read this book, and a part of me loves the feminist reading of the text (see here), but for this study, I am focusing on the lessons on humility presented in the book and ignoring all other readings.

What is Humility?

Occupy a rightful space, neither too much nor too little. Focus neither on your own virtues nor the faults of others.
— Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (p. 45).

With this definition in mind, I am reading the text to see the lessons that I can draw out of the book.

Vashti, too much or too little humility

The story begins with King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti throwing a grand banquet, the King for the men, and the Queen for the women.  The King demanded that Vashti be brought before him, "But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command delivered by the eunuchs. Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him (Esther 1:12)."

The traditional view sees this refusal as an act of vanity or defiance, even vanity.  The feminist view sees her as standing up to her drunkard husband.  The question is, what really happened?

The problem is that this passage is a Rorschach Test, and everyone reads into it their own biases.  I am probably doing that too, but I think I see an insight into humility in this passage.

What was Vashti's rightful place?  The text says: "Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus (Esther 1:9)."  Her place was a master of the banquet, ensuring that everything went off without a hitch.

When the King called her, he didn't just ask her to come into the next room, but for her to change clothes and parade herself before the men so they would see her as superior to their wives, who she was suppose to make sure were having a good time.

Vashti's actions were perfectly humble.  She did her duty rather than play to the arrogance and vanity of the king.  She must have known that she was putting her life in danger through this action, but she knew it was better for her to do her duty than to satisfy the lust of the men.

The Arrogance of the King

The drunk King Ahasuerus then consults his wise men about what should be done.  They feed his arrogance by saying that she wronged not only the king, but all the princes and guests at his party, ignoring that if she had come she would have shamed her own guests.  They then stoked his wrath by saying that her actions would bring about the end of every marriage in the kingdom, and cause wives to hate their husbands.  Does that sound familiar...

The idea that wounding the king's vanity would lead to the destruction of the kingdom's families is such an arrogance and insane level of hubris, that I cannot wrap my head around it.  This is not the last time, his arrogance will come up in the story, but this shows how extreme the problem is.

As king, Ahasuerus expanded his sense of place to encompass the lives of every person in his kingdom.  The very notion that if something so slight as Vashti doing her duty and not his will would corrupt every woman in the kingdom shows how he saw himself as the empire, and not just its head. 

He so over stepped his rightful place that his arrogance pushes Vashti out and sends him on a search for new wife.

Enter Esther

Esther enters the story as a model of Humility.  She fills her right space, not too much and not too little.  Every time she is mentioned in chapter 2, she is named with her heritage.  Like in the following passage, she is about to be brought before the king, and can bring with her anything she wants, so what does she do?

"Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her (Esther 2:15)."

She brings only what she was advised, and found favor with everyone.  Her humility should not be contrasted with Vashti, but with the King.  She knows if she is going to become next queen, she has to find favor with the King.

In my life, I need to learn from this example.  Esther, like the king in the previous chapter, sought the advise of someone who knew what she needed to know and do.  Unlike the King, Esther did not inflate her own self image, since she was very beautiful, but did what she need to do to become king. 

While she remembered her heritage, she kept it secret since it wasn't something they needed to know.  She filled the space available to her, and did not presume that her actions would effect more than just her and her immediate family.

The parallel between Esther and the King is a wonderful contrast of Humility and Arrogance.

Humility is the Root of Mindfulness

This week we are focusing on another of the 5 Strengths: Mindfulness.  Mindfulness is both the conscious living in the present moment, and the clear awareness of things as they are.  We chose to develop our mindfulness by focusing on the soul trait of Humility.

Humility is not what you think it is.  Humility is the one of the middle points between arrogance and self-effacement.  The other middle point in Pride.  While I know I really need to work on developing some Pride, this week is about humility.

Humility is occupying the space you are suppose to occupy.  A student is humble when they submit to the instruction of their teacher.  A teacher is humble when they take the lead and guide their students.

This quality depends on our circumstances and even our environment.  We must be mindful not to take up too much space or shrink from the space we should fill.

This has been a core problem of mine for a long time.  My issues with self-esteem have cause me to shrink into myself and not to take my proper role in many aspects of my life.  From my spiritual practice to my business, from my personal relationships to how I take care of myself. 

What is most interesting is that the more I shrank away from the role I should play in my own life and the lives of others, I have grown fatter and more out of shape.  It is like I compensated for my lack of proper space by taking up more physical space.

In my own life, I need to speak up when I need to, and take the actions I should take.  Discerning those places will not be easy, but it something I need to do.

Are you taking up the space you should take in your own life?  If you are not taking up enough, how will you expand yourself to take your proper space?  If you take up too much space, how will you reign in your ego to fit the space you have broken out of?

Some time with the Compassion Beads

During Advent, I bought some Compassion Beads from the San Antonio Peace Center.  The idea of a mnemonic method for remembering the elements of compassion appealed to me, and I thought they would make a valuable focus for both prayer and meditation, and it is.

Ten of the bead represent the alphabetical mnemonic:

  • Compassion
  • Dignity
  • Equanimity
  • Forgiveness
  • Gratitude
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Kindness
  • Love

The 11th, golden bead reminds us of the Golden Rule- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

For Meditation

While I have only just begun to explore their uses for meditation, I have found them useful as a method for contemplating what I call, "The Stations of Compassion."

Similar to the Stations of the Cross, I use each bead as an opportunity to visualize an event, either from the Holy Tradition, or events I have witnessed recently, that embodies that principle.  I like the practice to be spontaneous so I can also gauge my own mental state and attitude through the meditation and make the corrections needed at the time.

For Prayer

I have used these beads to facilitate many kinds of prayer: from the simple repetition of the principles to the more elaborate and extemporaneous prayer.

When I first saw these beads, I was reminded of St Francis, Canticle of the Sun, in which he prayed to personified creatures and principles to better understand our relationship to them and to the world.

The formula is simple, "Be Praised, My Lord, through Sister/Brother (Element), through which/whom (blessing is received)."

I don't allow myself to become rigid about the gender of the principles, and instead take a moment to meditate on why I said, "Brother Compassion" or "Sister Compassion."  Don't over analyze the choice, but let it be whatever it is at the moment.  It can be instructive.

If you are interested in donating to the San Antonio Peace Center and getting your own set of Compassion Beads, they are available on Etsy (here).

May you be filled with compassion and the causes of compassion, and free from apathy and the causes of apathy.