Sunday, September 13, 2009

Searching for Humility

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus begins by modeling his leadership on the principle of being a servant. The disciples do not understand the connection between his mission as the Suffering Servant and authority. Jesus came, "not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Jesus rebukes the apostles for debating among themselves "who was the greatest." Jesus called the Twelve and says to them, "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all." Jesus is calling the apostles to look deeper within their hearts to examine the motives for their actions. The Gospel reading this Sunday is one of a number of passages which deal with the important topic of sincerity and humility. In the parable found in Luke 14 someone sits at a lower place than is their due at a banquet and is moved to higher place by the host of the banquet, while someone else is moved downward for exalting himself and thinking more highly of himself than he should. In Luke 18 we have the story of the Pharisee and publican. The Pharisee's pride and self-importance smother his prayers. In both cases selfish-ambition and desire "to be seen by others" is a sign that there is a lack of humility.

In her work, The Interior Castle, St. Theresa of Ávila defines 'humility' as self-knowledge. Humility is being truthful with yourself about who you really are. Not thinking more highly of yourself than you should, but also not thinking less highly of yourself than you should. St. Theresa describes humility as a mirror in which we see ourselves as we are, but which also helps us to realize that any good thing we do has its source not in ourselves alone but in God's grace. This mirror also helps us to see the depths of our sins and shortcomings. This type of self-knowledge is absolutely crucial to begin to make progress in the spiritual life. St. Theresa notes, "Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should never like you to relax your cultivation of it." (IC, II)

The virtue of humility is defined by St Thomas Aquinas as "keeping oneself within one's own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one's superior" (Summa Contra Gent., IV, lv). Humility is a virtue in opposition to pride, and the virtue is exercised as a type of self-control. A false notion of humility often arises in which it is defined as "constantly putting yourself down." If someone met a famous painter and complimented the obvious beauty and profoundness of her work, it would not be humble of the painter to reply, "Oh, the painting is really not very good. I'm sure many others could do better." This is false humility. The humble response is simply to thank the person for the compliment and to give praise to God for bestowing these gifts on the painter. It would also be appropriate to acknowledge the discipline and hard work that went into developing these skills. Having said this, acknowledging what is true does not require us to begin boasting about our achievements. St. Francis de Sales warns of the false humility which causes us to "say we are nothing, that we are misery itself and the refuse of the world, but we would be sorry if anyone should take us at our word . . . On the contrary, we pretend to retire and hide ourselves, so that the world may run after us and seek us out" (Introduction to the Devote Life, III,5).

Our second reading from James reminds us that many disordered problems arise from "bitter jealousy and selfish ambition" and from a lack of truthfulness and sincerity and failure to control our passions (James 3:13-18). Humility comes from wisdom (James 3:13). It is not a lack of humility to seek professional prestige and to use the gifts God has given us to their fullness, even if this results in being noticed. To do less would actually be a failure to live up to the calling God has given to us. It would be a failure to use our gifts and talents for the glory of God. As the Catechism reminds us our human work is natural outgrowth of our being created in the image and likeness of God, it is a duty, it can be redemptive and it can be a means of sanctification, "a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ" (CCC 2427). Having said this, it is not right work in order to seek fame for fame's sake. Even the Apostles fell into this trap. As Jesus notes in this Sunday's Gospel; "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all." We are reminded of the title chosen for the Roman Pontiff, Servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God.

Perhaps Our Lady is the greatest example of a disciple living the virtue of humility. After receiving the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, Mary questions her own adequacy as the one chosen for this mission but resolves at the end of the passage, "I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Mary models complete abandonment to the divine will. Let us entrust ourselves to her maternal care.


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