The Vine and the Branches

In today’s first Mass reading from Act, Paul and Barnabus arrive back in Jerusalem and report to the Apostles and the presbyters “what God had done with them.”  Not what they had done, but what God had done through them.

That first reading from Acts (and I’ve written before about how much I love hearing from Acts every year during the Easter season) is coupled with the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and we are the branches.  And, he warns them, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

For me, this is at one and the same time humbling and empowering, and it is both of those for the same reason.  What we do we do, not through our own power, but through the Spirit of God that flows through us.  Without Jesus, we can do nothing; the branch without the vine will never bear fruit.  So it is humbling.  But at the same time, it is empowering because it reminds us that with Jesus, there is no limit.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”

Both readings also remind us that what we do we do for the glory of God, not for ourselves.  In the words of Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory.”  We need to be mindful of that we are about God’s work and God’s glory, not our own.  Once in a while, even the most well-intentioned among us loses sight of that.  We are capable of of forgetting it is not about us, but about God.  

Jesus also tells his disciples in this reading that the vine grower – the Father – prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit.  We might profitably reflect on the question: Where do I need some pruning?  What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?


Humility and Impressiveness

Yesterday, as the end of the Scarpa Conference at Villanova, I led a short spiritual exercise for the conference speakers.  I picked humility as the theme of the reflection I offered, inspired by what I knew would be the first reading for today’s Mass a passage from 1 Peter, which began, “Beloved, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.”  I talked about what it means to be humble and shared several reasons I thought humility was a particularly important virtue in today’s world.  After my talk, I invited the participants into a period of silent reflection, giving them several short passages and some questions to guide them.

During our sharing after the silent reflection period, one of the participants observed that it could be challenging to be humble given our particular profession, which often requires us to appear “impressive.”  (For example, a law school dean is often out meeting donors and must impress them.)

I thought about that comment again this morning as I was praying with the two Mass readings. Interestingly, the first reading from 1 Peter, which directly addresses humility, is paired with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples before his ascension to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

Surely proclaiming the Gospel effectively required the disciples to be impressive. But the disciples were also called by Jesus to be humble, which suggests that it is possible to be impressive while still being humble.  And, in fact, far from being opposed to each other, humility and effective proclamation of the Gospel go hand in hand.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines humility as

the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer. Voluntary humility can be described as “poverty of spirit.”

All that is required to remain humble while impressing others is remembering the source of all we are able to accomplish.  If we can remember that all we are and all we have is gift from God, then we can do and say things that impress people without losing humility.  And, in the case of proclaiming the Gospel, if anything, humility – keeping the focus on God as the “author of all good” – allows us to be a more effective evangelizers.

Humbly Ask Him To Remove Our Shortcomings

As the guest of a good friend of mine who is in his second year of recovery, yesterday I attended an AA meeting, something I had never done before.  I was very much moved by the raw honesty of the people who shared their stories. And, as people introduced themselves, as wonderful as it was to hear from people who have been sober for 12 or 15 or 20 years, it was the people who were in their early stages – those sober for 8 days or 12 days – that most touched my heart.  I rejoiced at their early steps toward recovery.

I am not totally unfamiliar with the Twelve Steps.  When I was writing Growing in Love and Wisdom, my research assistant was someone in recovery and helpfully pointed out places where the wisdom of the AA “Big Book” was consonant with points I was making, with the result that I quote from the “Big Book” in several places in my book.  But I can’t claim deep familiarity with all of the steps.

The reading shared at yesterday’s meeting was from the seventh step: “Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.”  The seventh step is about understanding that “the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”  In Christian terms, it is about embracing poverty of spirit – our utter and absolute dependence on God and God’s grace.

The language of the reading is no less true for non-alcoholics than for alcoholics. It described a shift away from the view of God as a “sort of bush-league pinch hitter, to be called upon only in an emergency” (a view I think is common among all too many believers).  That is, “[t]he notion that we would still live our own lives, God helping a little now and then began to evaporate.  Many of us who had thought ourselves religious awoke to the limitations of this attitude.  Refusing to place God first, we had deprived ourselves of His help.  But now the words ‘Of myself I am nothing, the Father doeth the works’ began to carry bright promise and meaning.”

As I heard the words, what came to mind is the line in Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Alcoholic or not, in recovery or not, all of us need to grow in our embrace of humility in this sense.  It is not about making ourselves smaller than we are.  It is about recognizing our need for God.



Humility in Today’s World

This morning I spoke at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington as part of their “Second Sunday” Speaker series. The topic I picked to speak on is Humility in Today’s World.

Although we live in a society that does not particularly prize humility, humility is a central virtue in the Catholic tradition. Saint Augustine called humility and foundation of all the virtues and St. Vincent dePaul attributed all of the graces he received to humility.

In my talk, I spoke about what humility is (distinguishing true humility from false humility), why I think it is an important virtue for us to cultivate in today’s world, and suggested ways we might develop this virtue. I then gave those present time for some individual reflection, after which we had a good discussion of the challenges to developing humility.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 39:02.) You can find the handout I gave the participants for individual reflection here.

Note: My recorder was sitting right next the microphone, so you may want to lower the volume as you listen.

Whoever Exalts Himself Will Be Humbled

Over the last couple of days, we have heard Jesus speak in parables to the chief priest, scribes and Pharisees. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus criticizes the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees in much more direct terms.

They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders,but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation “Rabbi.”

I’m guessing if we look around, we can find many examples of people behaving like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus criticized. I’m also guessing that if we examine our own behavior, we can find examples of the same.

Jesus offers a clear instruction as an alternative to the behavior he criticizes: “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Humility is not a trait that is particularly valued in our society. Rather, we live in a society that prizes a lot of things that have to do with the self: self-reliance, self- confidence, self-expression, self-centeredness. We talk about my achievements, my talents, the things I have earned. We prize our ability to take care of ourselves, to run things according to our own vision and plan.

But Jesus calls us to a humility. First in recognizing our dependence on God, our “one Father in heaven.” Second in our dealings with each other.

As challenging as is the command to love one another with the radical love that Jesus shows for all of us, I think the command to be humble is equally challenging. It is not about forcing ourselves to behave in a particular way. It is about internalizing the reality of our relationship with God and with one another.

Authentic Pastoral Leadership

Today’s Gospel is a portion of the episode recorded by John where the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples at the shore of Galilee. I’ve written and spoken before about he colloquy between Jesus and Peter, where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers, Jesus instructs: feed my lambs, tend my sheep.

Richard Gaillardetz says this about Jesus invitation to Peter to pastoral care:

The story exhibits the Christian shape of authentic pastoral leadership. We sometimes hear from our pastoral leaders the perfunctory language of humility (“and, me, your unworthy servant”). Yet in Peter, as portrayed in this reading, there is nothing false or artificial. Jesus called him to pastoral care out of the painful crucible of failure and forgiveness. Real pastoral leadership will never draw from petty privileges of prestige, power, and control. It is only because, at the very core of our being, we know ourselves to be forgiven that we can lead others to the audacious love of Christ.

It is easy to nod our heads when we read these words, critically concluding that not all those who lead our Church appear to manifest the type of humility of which Gaillardetz is speaking.

But his words are not only for those we give the label pastoral leaders. For all of us, our ability to be effective disciples, effective evangelizers, requires that we remember that we are called in our brokenness, in our weakness. Called, as Peter, out of the “crucible of failure and forgiveness.”

Where We Put Ourselves in the Story

My friend and colleague Mark Osler was the speaker at yesterday’s Weekly Manna gathering at the law school. His began his talk with Psalm 8, which Mark suggested invited awe, gratitude and humility.

It was humility that was Mark’s focus, and he shared the story of two of his heroes of humility. What particularly interested me was something he said in describing one of those heroes. He said that one of the difficulties he has with many theologians is that their reading of scripture comes from telling scripture stories in a way that puts themselves in the role of God. He gave the example of the story of Jesus and the woman adulterous woman. For some, that is a story of judgment of the woman by Jesus of her sinful ways; they read the story from the point of view of Jesus (“Go and sin no more”) rather than from the point of view of the Pharisees, the people about to cast stones or the adulterous woman. Mark’s view is that we are meant to see these stories from the perspective that is not God/Jesus. In that story, he said, I am not Jesus and the invitation is to examine how am I like the Phraisees? the people about to cast stones? the woman?

I’m not sure I would go quite as far as Mark. I don’t disagree at all with the centrality of humility; I think it is one of the most important virtues and necessities for spiritual growth. And I agree that the perspective through which we look at a story is important.

But I think we benefit from multiple perspectives. Consider a passage I have prayed with quite often – the story of the Prodigal Son. At various times I have related more to one or the other of the brothers. But relating to the forgiving father – through the eyes of my motherhood of my daughter – has been a way to deepen my apprehension of God’s love and forgiveness.

So I would not conclude, as Mark does, that we are not never meant to put ourselves in the God role in Jesus’ stories. But we do need to be careful about assuming we can fully see things from God’s perspective or assuming we know more about God’s ways than we do or can.

What It Means to Be Humble

The theme of humility has come up frequently in my reading (and some of my writing) or late. Yesterday I came across Jessica Powers’ poem, Humility. (Powers, who died in 1988, was a Carmelite nun, also known as Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.) I love the way she expresses what it means to be humble.

Humility is to be still
under the weathers of God’s will.
It is to have no hurt surprise
when morning’s ruddy promise dies,
when wind and drought destroy, or sweet
spring rains apostatize in sleet,
or when the mind and month remark
a superfluity of dark.
It is to have no troubled care
for human weathers anywhere.
And yet it is to take the good
with the warm hands of gratitude.
Humility is to have place
deep in the secret of God’s face
where one can know, past all surmise,
that God’s great will alone is wise,
where one is loved, where one can trust
a strength not circumscribed by dust.
It is to have a place to hide
when all is hurricane outside.

No hurt surprise when things don’t go the way we anticipate they should. Gratitude when they do. Acceptance of what is, as well as the security of God’s promise that (to use the words of God’s promise to Julian of Norwich) “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Practicing Humility

The first Mass reading today from the Book of Sirach instructs “conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Similarly, today’s Gospel from Luke finds Jesus using the example of banquet seating as a way to instruct against the desire for honor and in favor of humility.

In his homily this morning, Fr. Dan Griffith suggested that humility is one of the virtues most prized by Jesus. And he suggested three ways to practice humility: to know who we are before God, to recognize and admit our weaknesses and limitations, and to recognize that all of our gifts come from God.

Together those three practices help us understand the difference between true humility and false humility. True humility is not about low self-esteem or feeling badly about ourselves. It is about seeing ourselves as we truly are. And that means first, understanding that (to use a colloquial expression I sometimes use) that God is God and I am not and embracing my dependence on God (poverty of spirit). It means second, understanding that all we are and all we have are gifts from our loving God. And it means accepting both that I am not perfect and that God does not expect perfection from me.

The truly humble see themselves as they are, neither lower or higher. And that is a worthy virtue to practice.

Like Simon or the Sinful Woman?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is dining at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, when a “sinful woman, ” who has learned of Jesus’ presence there, “stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”

Simon is aghast that Jesus is allowing this, assuming Jesus does not recognize the “sort of woman…who is touching him.” Jesus, of course, knows exactly who the woman is and what she has done, and he chides Simon, saying:

Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

The Simon’s of this world think they have it all. They live lives that (in their eyes) are blameless; they don’t feel they owe anyone anything and they do not believe they need anything (certainly not forgiveness, since, after all, they live such blameless lives).

The woman know her failings, her weaknesses. And she knows she is in need for forgiveness. She comes in her weakness and offers what she has in humility.

For us the question for reflection is, are there times when we behave like Simon? How do we approach Jesus?