This week I’m thrilled to share an (adapted) excerpt from Marlena Graves’s book, The Way Up Is Down. You may have already heard about this book: it was published in July 2020 and won a 2021 Christianity Today Award of Merit. I wanted to draw attention to it because it is such an important read for our contemplative community. In the first few pages, Marlena quotes Teresa of Avila, and then she goes on to dialogue with other historical and contemplative figures like Macrina the Younger, Saint Benedict, and the church fathers.
Above all, Marlena goes deep into Scripture to teach us about emptying ourselves and embracing a life of following Jesus. Enjoy this excerpt from chapter two of The Way Up Is Down.
Down Low With Jesus
None of us knows what we don’t know unless our eyes are opened. My first revelation was the cafeteria lunch ticket. It was on display for all to see when I handed it to the lunch lady. No way to be discrete. Its bright color marked me as eligible for a free lunch.
Sometimes sheer embarrassment over being known as poor kept me from eating lunch. My free lunch ticket: a stigma. Of course, if I were really hungry and knew I’d return home to an empty refrigerator when I stepped off of the school bus, I swallowed my pride and presented the lunch ticket. More indications.
Upon returning from Puerto Rico in fifth grade, someone derogatorily asked, “Are you black?” Until then, I didn’t know I looked different from others. Now, as a bleached out biracial Puerto Rican, I am blanquita. Then, I was darker. As a child and teenager, I didn’t know I had an accent until my best friend’s mother told me I did. Now, I am told I have no accent.
However, it was as an employee at a Christian college that I became acutely aware of the economic, cultural, and racial disparity in my environments. It was at the Christian college that I learned how underprivileged I was.
After Brenda Salter-McNeil, a thought leader in the area of racial reconciliation, led a large room full of people in an activity dubbed the “Race Race,” everything made sense. The starting line was masking tape laid down across the middle of an all-purpose classroom. Dr. Salter-McNeil asked a series of questions like: Did you go to summer camps? Did your parents attend college? Did you qualify for free and reduced lunches? Are you a woman? and Are you an ethnic minority? Our answers determined whether we took steps forward or backward. At the end of fifty questions, I was at the back of the room with one of my best friends, an African American woman. Almost dead last. Way behind the starting line, not to mention the finish line.
When everyone turned to see who was last, I stood there humiliated. This time my answers to the questions, not my lunch ticket, exposed me as a have not. Until then I had no idea how underprivileged I was. I thought I was doing well. However, even though my ethnicity, gender, and economic status of my family of origin were not under my control, they affected everything. I can’t escape the facts of my life even with lunch money and a refrigerator full of groceries. I was born into last place or nearly last place. Even with the privileges I have now, I’ll never be able to catch up with those who started ahead of me. That day, I discovered that even with my education and ability to think, fundamentally, I was still on society’s and the American church’s bottom of the pecking order. I was a bottom dweller.
Growing up and even into my adulthood, I despaired over the hand I was dealt. I often begged God to explain why the cards were stacked against me as a Hispanic-Latina woman born into a poor family that was plagued by the effects of mental illness. I used to despair a lot, but not as much anymore. Yes, there are instances. But I don’t remain in self-pity for long stretches of time. On these occasions I am reminded that the gospel is especially good news for the poor, people on the lowest rungs of society, people like me and my family of origin. God gives grace to the humble. Though I am haunted by the effects of generational poverty, though I may have been born on the lowest rung in America, in many ways I am rich.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:3 (KJV). People like me and my kind may be deemed poor and stupid and not worthy of a second glance. Animals to be caged. Not worthy to be anybody’s teacher. But if your poverty and my poverty and deprivation (whatever form poverty takes in our lives) produce in us poverty of spirit, if our humiliations produce in us humility and dependence on God, then we shall be exalted now—in our lives with God—and in the life to come.
These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2) When I remember what is true, instead of obsessing about non-truth or the hierarchies and idols associated with money, power, and fame, I can rejoice.
I am bidding farewell to worldly status. Along with Mary and Jesus, I am throwing my lot in with others who by the world’s standards are disinherited and found at the bottom of all the hierarchies. Because I’ve found that God turns our hierarchies and our worldly values on their heads. It is only in our poverty and our intentional renunciation of worldly status seeking—in emptying ourselves of those ambitions—that we are ever open to being filled to the brim with grace. We cannot become full of God’s life when we are chasing status, recognition, and honor from the world or the Christian culture—that only leads us to outer darkness. Like Jesus, we are to seek the lowest place and figure out exactly what that means for our particular lives. So, with Mary I marvel and sing:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:46-53 ESV)
If we humble ourselves by seeking the lowest place, we will be exalted. God will fill those of us who are hungry and empty and poor with good things as we look to him to feed us and fill us.