Twelve Steps to Humility

In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book Steps of Humility and Pride.

(1) Fear of God – To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.

Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.

Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.

(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.

(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.

Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.

Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.

We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.

(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.

(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:

External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”

(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.

With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.

(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.

As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.

Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.

As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.

(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.

(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.

The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.

You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world considers great and honorable is rather different from what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover its paradoxical vision.

I. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices people vying for seats of honor. In response, He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.

What the Lord is really reminding us is that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is most common at wedding receptions, where seats are assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is rude, pompous, and presumptuous. The polite and expected behavior is to report to the entrance table, receive your table assignment, and graciously take your seat there.

Of course, the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. God has a place for us, but it is He who assigns each person his place.

Recall that when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest, Jesus responded, I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).

Another time, when James and John approached Jesus for seats at His right and left (places of honor), Jesus responded, to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).

So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.

Many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s Kingdom. That right belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich or powerful as others. Some wish they were taller, thinner, smarter, or more attractive. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.

Be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean that it is so. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God, so being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, and good looks are all things that tend to root us in this world; they are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like someone else’s, a family like someone else’s, or a talent like someone else’s may not be what is best for us.

God gives each of us the talents and blessings as well as the burdens and challenges He knows are best for us. Don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find out His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one in mind for you.

II. THE PARADOX of HONORS – Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect, He was struck by how people perceive honor and how they vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress others and be thought of as important.

Remember that this is God’s banquet. The qualifications for the seats of honor there are very different from those necessary for worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like brawn, beauty, and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, and a big entourage. When a limo pulls up, just watch all eyes turn. The popular, the powerful, the glitterati, and the game changers emerge to flashing cameras and thunderous applause. These are the things that we notice; this is what draws our eyes.

What about God? As God looks around the banquet hall of His Kingdom, who catches His eye? The Lord provides the answer in many places in Scripture:

        • Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43).
        • Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26).
        • Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar (Ps 138:6).
        • But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27).
        • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
        • Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last (Luke 13:30).
        • He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52).

So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches His eye? Is it those at the “head table”? It is those on the red carpet? No. If we apply God’s words, we see that those who draw God’s attention are not even at the table; they are the ones waiting on tables, the ones serving, the ones back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes. It is the lowly, the humble, the servants of all, who catch God’s eye.

This is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom. It is not about being powerful in a worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car, or bank account. Our popularity does not impress Him. It is our service, humility, and love for others that catches His eye. The seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, are for those who serve.

III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – The prescription is clear. Jesus instructs us, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”

If we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then we had better become a servant. Jesus says that we should take the lowest place, that we should serve before we sit. It is serving others that makes a person great. The greatest thing about us is not our big paycheck or our fancy house; it is that we serve.

We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents, and abilities to build up the people of God and extend His Kingdom. Even things we do for which we are paid can be service, provided that serving is our primary motivation.

Jesus then adds, When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. This is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.

Jesus is giving us more than a moral directive (be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in His Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the afflicted, because they give us the ability to serve. In the end, our greatest honor is serving others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.

A final dimension is learning that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Because serving is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, clean our houses and workplaces, do our “dirty work,” serve in our hospitals, and care for and serve us in countless other ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips when that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.

For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10:43).

Yes, you have to serve before you sit in any place of honor at God’s banquet.

The song in the video below says, “Sit down, servant. I can’t sit down … My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down.” The video depicts quite a varied cultural expression: a Thai choir singing an African-American spiritual!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

A Man Who Saw by Hearing

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Eustache Le Sueur

This Sunday’s Gospel features the well-known story of the healing of the blind man (Bartimaeus). When listening to any familiar story, we are inclined, upon hearing its opening lines, to think, “Oh, that story,” and just sort of tune out. If we do so, though, we may miss some important details.

The story of Bartimaeus is also our story; we, too, must let the Lord heal our blindness and give us sight. One paradox of this Gospel is that Bartimaeus receives his sight as the result of hearing.

Let’s look at the Gospel in six stages.

I.  The Perception of the Problem – The text says, As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, sat by the roadside begging.

Bartimaeus has troubles; he is both blind and poor. He is not spiritually blind, however, for he is aware of his problems. Knowing our troubles, being in touch with our neediness, is an important spiritual insight that many people lack.

We all depend on God for every beat of our hearts, yet some people are unaware of how blind, poor, naked, and pitiable they are before God (cf Rev 3:17). In their pride, those who are spiritually blind lose this insight. They fail to ask for help from the Lord; they fail to ask for grace. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41). In other words, physical blindness is not their problem; it is spiritual blindness. Because they think themselves righteous by their own power, they think they do not need God and do not truly seek Him. Only humility and a true “vision” and experience of our poverty can help us to call out to God as we should.

Bartimaeus knows that he is blind, so he calls for help. His pleas need some direction, though; they need to be properly specified and directed.

So, we begin by noting that although Bartimaeus is blind he has spiritual insight.

Do we have this insight? Do we understand how blind we are? We struggle to see God; we struggle to see and understand ourselves; we struggle to see others with compassion and understanding. Indeed, God is more present to us than is anything in this world. Somehow, we can see all the things of this world yet struggle to see God. Neither do we see our own dignity, or the dignity and the gifts of others, including our enemies. We do not see or understand how things work together, and we struggle to see and find meaning in the events of our day. We are also blind to our sin and seldom fully comprehend the harm our sin does.

Yes, we have a great deal of blindness; we struggle to see. Perhaps our worst blindness is not realizing how blind we are. Like the Pharisees, we think that because we know a few things, we therefore know many things.

Consider Bartimaeus’ humility: he knows he is blind, that he needs help, grace, and mercy. It is this humility that opens the door. The first stage in the journey is perceiving the problem.

II.  The Proclamation that is Prescribed – The text says, On being told it was Jesus of Nazareth who was passing by, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus son of David have pity on me.”

Note the subtle but important transition here. Up until this point, Bartimaeus has been calling upon anyone passing by for help. But no mere passerby, nor in fact anyone in this world, can ultimately help him with his real problem.

It is the same with us. Though we may turn to science, medicine, philosophy, economics, or politics, none of these can really help us. At best these can serve to specify what is wrong or to provide us with temporary comfort, but all these solutions will be rooted in this world, which is passing away.

True vision can only be granted by the Lord, who opens for us a vision of glory and who alone can draw us safely to that place where joys will never end, and visions will never cease.

When Bartimaeus is told of Jesus’ presence, he directs his cry to the Lord, who alone can heal him: Jesus, son of David, have pity on me! The world and passersby can give him money or a meal, but only Jesus can give him meaning, the true vision he really needs to see.

Do not miss the fact that his seeing comes, paradoxically, through hearing. Faith comes by hearing, and more specifically, hearing from the Word of God (cf Rom 10:17). Faith is about hearing, not seeing. We sometimes doubt things that we see. Even if we see a marvel, we tend to dismiss it, thinking, “Oh, they have some way of doing that.” No, the eye is never satisfied with seeing (cf Eccl. 1:8). Faith comes by hearing, and faith is obedience to what is heard. We walk by faith, by an inner seeing, not by physical sight.

Bartimaeus hears from others that Jesus is passing by and takes up the proclamation that is prescribed: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

III. The Perseverance that Produces – The text says, And they rebuked him, telling him to be silent. Yet he kept calling all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man saying to him, “Take courage; get up. Jesus is calling you.”

Those of us who put our trust in the Lord and call on Him will often experience rebuke, hostility, and ridicule from the world. Bartimaeus ignores all of this and so should we. He has heard the Name above all names, who alone in Heaven and earth can save, and calls upon Him.

Jesus does not answer him right away, but the Bartimaeus perseveres, calling out all the more. Eventually, Jesus stops and says, “Call him.”

Why does God delay? While this is a mystery, one of the effects of His delay is to test our faith and strengthen it. In the end, it is not an incantation that saves us, but faith. Simply shouting, “In the name of Jesus!” is not enough. The name of Jesus is not some magical phrase like “Open, Sesame.” Rather, it is an announcement of faith, and faith is more than words. Ultimately, it is not words alone that save us, but the faith that must underlie the words.

IV.  The Priority that is Presented – The text says, He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.

Do not miss this important detail: Bartimaeus’ cloak is probably the most valuable thing he owns. In that arid climate, the temperature drops rapidly after sunset, and it gets quite cool. In fact, so critical was the cloak that Scripture forbade taking one as collateral for a loan:  If a man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it (Deut 24:12-13).

Despite this, Bartimaeus casts aside his cloak and goes to Jesus. He leaves behind perhaps the item most necessary for his survival in this world. Missing a meal might be inconvenient or uncomfortable but it would not kill him. Spending one cold night without his cloak might well cause his death by hypothermia. Yet Bartimaeus leaves it behind and runs to the Lord.

What about us? What are we willing to leave behind in order to find Christ? An old gospel song says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.” Another old hymn says, “There’s nothing between my soul and the Savior.” Is that true? Are you willing to leave it behind? Are you free enough to do so?

V.  The Permission that is Procured – The text says, Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, Master, I want to see!”

Why does Jesus ask this question? Can He not see what Bartimaeus needs?

Being healed takes courage. Most of us seek mere relief, not healing. Tue healing takes courage because it brings about change and places new demands on us. If Bartimaeus is healed, it will no longer be acceptable for him to sit and beg; more will be expected of him; his life will be irrevocably changed.

Yes, to be healed requires courage. Many of us wonder why the Lord delays in answering our prayers. Perhaps we should think about a question from last week’s Gospel: “Do you have any idea what you are asking?” Often, we do not.

There is a big difference between relief and healing, and the Lord is in the healing business. Do not miss what the Lord is really saying here. In effect, he asks, “Are you sure you really want to be healed?” The Lord respects us and our free will. He wants our consent before going to work. Though many of us think we want healing, we often don’t really know what we are asking.

The Lord waits until our request makes sense. He knows that many times, though we ask, we are not really ready for what He offers. He asks us, and only when our yes becomes definitive does He go to work.

VI.  The Path that is Pursued – The text says, Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.

True healing brings forth radical change. The man who sat by the road begging now sees, but he is also up and walking about. What is he doing? He is following Jesus. Faith has saved him. Faith not only gives sight but also summons us to obedience, an obedience that has us walk in the path of the Lord.

You see (pardon the pun), faith is more than an offer of relief. True faith instills real change: change in direction and change in the way we walk.

Thus, this Sunday Gospel speaks to us of a man who was blind, but, paradoxically, receives his sight and his faith by hearing. Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus and then called on Him. Yes, his sight came from his hearing, and faith grants vision by hearing. True vision is seeing Christ, and having seen Him by hearing, following Him.

I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light

1. I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world;
the star of my life is Jesus.

Refrain:
In him there is no darkness at all;
the night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

2. I want to see the brightness of God;
I want to look at Jesus.
Clear Sun of righteousness, shine on my path,
and show me the way to the Father.

3. I’m looking for the coming of Christ;
I want to be with Jesus.
When we have run with patience the race,
we shall know the joy of Jesus.

A Meditation on the Poverty of Riches, as Seen in a Video

At Mass for Wednesday of the 25th Week of the Year, we read this passage:

Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me [only] with food that I need for today: Lest I be full, and deny you, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. (Proverbs 30:9-10).

One of the great problems of our time is satiation. Because of our own inordinate drives, we accumulate and indulge beyond reason. Filled, we have little room for God or others for that matter.

The more affluent we become in material things, the more spiritually poor we seem to become. The higher our standard of living, the lower our overall morals. The more filled our coffers, the emptier our churches. The numbers demonstrate clearly show that over the past 60 years our standard of living has risen while church attendance and other signs of belief and spirituality have plummeted—so has family time and the developing of deep human relationships. Marriage rates have plummeted while divorce has soared. Birthrates are down. Children are considered a burden in a satiated world with a high standard of living. These are the evils of our times.

It isn’t just wealth, either; it’s all the things that distract and divert us. There are so many pleasures available to us, most of them lawful, but often it’s just too much of a good thing.

One might imagine another scenario in which we were astonished by God’s providence and fell to our knees in gratitude; in our riches and possession of so many good things we prayed and went to Mass even more often out of sheer gratefulness. Alas this is seldom the case today.

Our affluence creates the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-fulfillment.

St. Augustine sadly noted, in a time far less satiated than our own, I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not be (Confessions 10.27).

Many other Scriptures warn of the spiritual danger posed by wealth and worldly satiation:

  • But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Tim 6:9-10).
  • No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money! (Luke 16:13)
  • But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
  • But many that are first will be last, and the last first (Mat 19:30).
  • How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:23-25).

It is amazing that despite all of this most of us still want to be rich and would jump for joy if we won the lottery; instead we should soberly cringe with fear and look for good ways to shed our excess.

Alas, this is the human condition, or at least the fallen version of it. It isn’t very pretty and is proof positive that we are going to need a lot of grace and mercy to get home.

Think of that this as you watch this video. It’s a stark portrait of modern man. Consider how full, yet lonely, the man in the video is. He speaks only of himself and seems to interact with almost no one. He’s lost in a self-referential world of excess, filled with every good thing, but too full for God. Somehow the man knows that the worldly things fill him for only a moment and then pass, but still the answer is more! It’s quite a commentary on too many of us today.

As the Proverb says, he is rich and says, “Who is the Lord?”

Humility in Prayer According to St. Teresa of Avila

I have written before on humility in prayer as St. Augustine sets it forth. In today’s post I look to the same topic, but this time as St. Teresa of Avila presents it in her treatise The Way of Perfection.

In setting forth her teaching, I have substantially reworked the order of her reflections. St. Teresa was able to see the “whole rose” of the topic, jumping from petal to petal without effort. I, being of a vastly inferior intellect and of far less purity of soul, must look to the individual petals in a certain order to understand. If you wish to read the passage in its original order, it is available here: St Teresa on Humility in Prayer.

Following is my presentation of her teaching as best I am able. In effect, St. Teresa summons us to trust in the Lord’s answer to our prayers rather than insisting on our own preferred outcomes and worldly measures of success.

Let’s look at her teaching in five stages. St. Teresa’s teaching is presented in italics while my remarks are shown in plain red text. The passages below are taken from the book The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila, virgin (Obras de la gloriosa madre Sta Teresa de Jesus, Tomo 1, Madrid, 1752: 30:1-4 pp. 526-528).

The Prayer Plan Therefore, the good Jesus bids us repeat these words, this prayer for his kingdom to come in us: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. See how wise our Master is! Our good Jesus placed these two petitions side by side … But what do we mean when we pray for this kingdom? … It seems to me that this point deserves serious attention.

Many conceive of prayer as a time to tell God what we need. Intercessory prayer surely has its place, but it ought not to dominate. As St. Teresa reminds us and the Our Father teaches, we ought to acknowledge more consistently the holiness and wisdom of God and seek His kingdom and will in our lives.

Hence, prayer is seeking God’s will, not announcing our own. We all have our preferences in life. We would rather be healthy than ill, financially well off than destitute, in peace than at war. Our ultimate goal, though, is to trust that what God wills or allows is what is best.

Is God holy for us, or is he just a butler who should fetch what we want? Do we love the God of all consolation or merely the consolations of God? To pray, then, is to disclose our heart and seek to conform it to the Kingdom and to the will of God.

The Perfect PictureO Eternal Wisdom, between you and your Father that was enough; that was how you prayed in the garden. You expressed your desire and fear but surrendered yourself to his will.

St. Teresa points to Jesus Himself as the perfect picture. His human preference is for the cup of suffering to be taken away, but His deepest desire is to be conformed to His Father’s will:

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).

We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. To be freed from suffering is appealing to Jesus, but not so appealing as to cause Him to violate His Father’s will. Nothing could do that.

Jesus is the ideal picture of prayer. His heart is perfectly united to the Father and His lesser human desire to avoid suffering is subjugated to His ultimate desire: to do whatever the Father wants. It is for us to journey toward this perfect picture. As we grow in the grace and love of God, we increasingly want what He wants, even if it is challenging, even if it leads us to martyrdom.

The Persistent Problem But as for us, my Lord, you know that we are less submissive to the will of your Father …. You see, the gift our Lord intends for us may be by far the best, but if it is not what we wanted we are quite capable of flinging it back in his face. That is the kind of people we are; ready cash is the only wealth we understand.

Nothing plainer or more accurate could be said. It is normal to have certain preferred outcomes in life and in general it is not wrong to petition God for these things, but we are often very particular about what we want and so quick to become crestfallen and resentful if we do not get what we want, when we want it, and in just the manner. In addition, our desires are too easily worldly and vain.

So often our Lord must repeat what He said to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking” (Mt 20:22). St. Paul also reminds us, For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. (Rom 8:26).

Thus, we must ask humbly, realizing that God knows what is best. He sees a more complete picture and understands that simply giving us what we want often leads to troublesome results. Despite our momentary disappointments, we often come to realize that some of God’s greatest gifts have been the times when he said no or gave us something other than what we sought. It is interesting, for example, that no matter how many times God warns about wealth in the Scriptures, most of us still want to be wealthy. Our desires can be obtuse and close us in on worldly and fleshly things.

Recall the words of Jesus to the crowds who wanted another free meal after He multiplied the loaves and fishes: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (Jn 6:27). Jesus was speaking of the Eucharist, His very self, but they just wanted ordinary bread. They were behaving like the ancient Jews, who tired of the miraculous manna, calling it wretched (Num 21:5), and pining for the melons and leeks of their slave years in Egypt (Num 11:5).

Yes, indeed, all we understand is “ready cash,” as St Teresa observes. How we must wear God out!

The Particular PetitionMy Lord, could you not have included all in one word by saying “Father, give us whatever is good for us?” After all, to one who understands everything so perfectly, what need is there to say more?

For our prayer to grow, and our desires to be purified, a simple and filial trust of the Father is the key:

Whatever you want, O Heavenly Father, I want it too. I know it will be best. Even if my first emotional response is less than happy, I know that my truest happiness will be in whatever you will for me.

While the Lord Jesus directs us to present our needs to Him and to persevere in our prayers, it does not follow that we should give God detailed instructions. Doing so would be controlling, not trusting. It is enough to say, “Here are my needs, my concerns. I know that you will do whatever is best. Whatever you want, Lord, I will be fine knowing that you have heard and answered in your own way.

Indeed, there is no safer or better place in the world than inside the will of God. St. Teresa reminds us that humility in prayer comes finally to this: “Father give us whatever is good for us.”

Of course, whatever is good for us is that which will best lead us to Heaven. Hence, St. Teresa concludes with a vision that should always be before us.

The Palliative PerceptionOf the many joys that are found in the kingdom of heaven, the greatest seems to me to be the sense of tranquility and well-being that we shall experience when we are free from all concern for earthly things …. Loving him is the soul’s one concern. Indeed it cannot help but love him, for it knows him. Here below our love must necessarily fall short of that perfection and constancy, but even so how different it would be, how much more like that of heaven, if we really knew our Lord!

I use the word palliative here to mean healing. We must look to Heaven to see our prayers and desires healed. There is an old saying, “The end is the beginning.” If we know our destination, then every other decision we make is directed toward that destination.

For example, if I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City, I can freely disregard signs for roads that lead south or west, knowing that they will not help me to get there. Even if I have to wait in heavy traffic, drive through heavy storms, or pay tolls, I am not overwhelmed because I know that every mile north and east gets me closer.

In our spiritual journey, we must meditate often on our destiny. Our goal is to be with the Lord forever. Our destination is Heaven, that beautiful place beyond description or imagination, where we are at peace in the presence of our God, lost in wonder and awe, and caught up into the great trinitarian dance of love. Looking into the beautiful face of God for which our soul yearns, all our lesser and often petty desires of this world will be gone.

As St. Teresa notes, however, all this doesn’t have to wait for Heaven. Even here in this world, as we grow to know the Lord more deeply our desires become purer and our prayer more humble. Increasingly, we come to be able to say what St. Thomas Aquinas did when asked by the Lord what he wanted: Nil nisi Te, Domine, nil nisi Te (nothing but You, O Lord, nothing but You). St. Teresa adds her hearty amen.

True Freedom, As Articulated in the Story of an Ancient Philosopher

credit: Xufanc, Wikimedia Commons

There is an old story that speaks to the true source of freedom:

The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for his supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who said, “If you would learn to be more subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied, “Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to cultivate the king.”

We often think that money, power, and access give us freedom; this may be partially true. If I have money and access I can usually procure more things and have greater variety, but what deeper freedoms have I surrendered for the surface-level freedoms of variety and quantity? In return for these lesser freedoms, the world usually demands a loyalty that require us to surrender important core principles. In exchange for access to this world’s income, approval, and trinkets, it is usually demanded (explicitly or implicitly) that we adopt the ways, thinking, and morals of the world. Satan articulates this transaction very clearly to Jesus:

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7).

In making this one concession, Jesus would have gained the “freedom” to maneuver and to do as He pleased—but what a concession!

Worshiping the devil or his world (for he is the prince of this world) is too high a price to pay for its passing and limited freedoms. Yet in subtler but real ways, it is something most of us do. We will compromise moral truths and even commit sin in order to ingratiate ourselves to others. To be popular, we will parrot the views of the world—even if they are contrary to God’s revealed truth; we will remain silent when we should speak. We do not always do this in malice, but rather out of our weakness. We feel pressured to conform, knowing that it is required for access and approval.

Is giving in to this pressure really freedom? As Diogenes teaches, we need to learn to “eat lentils” if we want to be free. We must become free of our desire for this world’s passing trinkets (and they are only trinkets compared to what God offers). Until we do this, the shallow freedoms of the world will appeal to us too much. Of true freedom St. Paul writes,

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).

Help us, Lord, to be truly free.

What is Humility? What are Its Limits?

This post is part of an occasional series on the virtues

At its heart, humility is reverence for the truth about oneself. We are neither to esteem ourselves too highly nor despise ourselves as bereft of God’s gifts. By humility we acknowledge that we depend on God and the gifts of others but also that we are called to accept our gifts and then use them for others. None of us has all the gifts, but together, and from God, we have all the gifts. In acknowledging our own gifts, humility calls us to remember that they are gifts, received from God and supplied or awakened by others. St. Paul says, What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)

Fundamentally, humility bids us to recognize our lowliness and remember our need to be submitted to the gifts and lawful authority of others. The word humility is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, the earth beneath our feet.

Humility as a virtue is the good habit by which a person has a modest estimate of his own worth and submits himself to others, according to reason. St. Thomas says, “… humility is a quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake. … The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, and submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, Ch. 55).

Humility does not require us to have no esteem for the gifts and graces that God has granted us. No one should fail to esteem the gifts of God, which are to be valued above all things. St. Paul says that one of the works of the Holy Spirit is That we may know the things that are given us from God (1 Corinthians 2:12). Humility also moves us to esteem the goods in others that we do not possess and to acknowledge defects or sins in our own self that we do not perceive in others. In this sense, saints were able to see their own faults and sins in a clearer light than that which is ordinarily given to persons who are not saints.

Humility is a kind of key that removes pride and makes us able and fit to receive grace. St. James writes, God resists the proud, and gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6).

An additional dimension of humility is the spontaneous embracing of humiliations. This is a practice humility accepts (though not in every case) when it is done for a necessary purpose. It is not humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation. Doing so may harm good order and divert those gifted in one area to act immoderately in areas beneath or beside what they are best and most fit to do. When virtue calls for a thing to be done, even a very lowly one, it belongs to humility not to shrink from doing it. For example, you should not refuse to perform some lowly service when charity calls upon you to help others.

Humility is a virtue and “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Thus, virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Humility is no exception.

The defect of humility is pride, in which we esteem our self too highly and forget our lowliness and need.

These are the excesses of humility:

  • Too great an obsequiousness, which may serve to pamper the pride in others through flattery or encourage their sins of tyranny, arrogance, and arbitrariness.
  • Too much abjection of oneself, wherein one disdains the gifts of God. Disdaining one’s gifts is not in service of the truth and dishonors the giver. It may also limit one’s usefulness to others by hiding or limiting what God wants shared and used for others.
  • Displaced humility – Excess humility may also be derogatory to a man’s office or holy character such that he dishonors both himself and his office. This can dishearten others or fuel irreverence and dishonor to offices or states of life (e.g., the consecrated religious life or the priesthood).

St. Thomas, drawing on St. Gregory and others, lists degrees (or acts) of humility:

  1. To be humble in heart but also to show it in one’s very person, one’s eyes fixed on the ground; one should restrain haughty looks.
  2. To speak few and sensible words and not to be loud of voice; one should not be immoderate in speech.
  3. Not to be easily moved and disposed to laughter; one should check laughter and other signs of senseless or demeaning mirth.
  4. To maintain silence until one is asked; one should not be in a hurry to speak.
  5. To do nothing except as exhorted by the common rule of the monastery or community; in one’s work one should seldom depart from the ordinary way.
  6. To believe and acknowledge oneself a greater sinner than all; in this respect one should ponder first one’s own sinfulness.
  7. To presume oneself insignificant and unprofitable for most purposes; one should deem oneself less than fully capable of great things.
  8. To confess one’s sin; one should experience one’s sinfulness with compunction.
  9. To embrace patience by obeying under difficult and contrary circumstances; one should not be deterred from this on account of the difficulties and hardships that come under obedience.
  10. To subject oneself to a superior; one should regulate one’s own will according to the judgment of a lawful superior.
  11. To avoid excessive delight in fulfilling one’s own desires; one should not insist on one’s own will.
  12. To fear God and to be always mindful of everything that He has commanded.

It’s hard not be moved to the recognition that we in many ways fall short of this virtue.

Because it governs and moderates pride (our chief fault), humility is to be regarded as one of the most needed of virtues. May the Lord grant us humility in the abundance and clarity needed!

Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility

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080915Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin. Humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life, and as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.

I. The Foundation of Humility – Humility as a foundation is a good image, because by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.

By humility we understand that we are small and poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), but also on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.

We are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”

Do you think you have life figured out? Can you define it? Imagine that you have before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me, what is that? Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?

Thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.

II. The First Humility – We must distinguish between humility toward God and humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and it is first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.

Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God, for not everything in another person is superior; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.

Indeed, our first humility is toward God. By it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. Even more so, no good work of ours—not even the slightest salutary act—can happen without the grace of God.

III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that we do not have meaning, direction, or purpose apart from God. Therefore, we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.

Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense.  They hold that everything that has happened is by chance; a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). Even atheists, though, cannot seem to accept or live by their own radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to live in a meaningless world—and he died insane.

For us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what He has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what He teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.

IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and yet resistant to what we know is good. Our will is inconsistent, vacillating, and whimsical, yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common-sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little makes us think we know it all.  Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.

V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). Indeed, our neighbors have many things from God that are to be respected. They have things that we share, but also many others that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts, and you do not have all the gifts, but together we have all the gifts. We have them all, though, only by mutual respect and humble submission. Thus, our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us and of our completion.

Note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches regarding humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery nor is it to be rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and have suffered as a result.

Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse it.

Therefore, the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected because humility always regards the truth.

VI. The Focus of Humility – “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.

What is the truth? Each of us is gifted but incomplete.

Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts, but they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you, most often through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to develop the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So, you do have gifts, but they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)

Although you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. This is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. Whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.

Admit it: true humility is tough. If you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?

Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):

  1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,
  2. to grieve on account of it,
  3. to confess it,
  4. to convince others to believe this,
  5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,
  6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and
  7. to love being thus treated

In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?