Emulating Christ’s Humility

One of my favorite passages in Paul’s letters is the “plea for unity and humility” in the Letter to the Philippians.

As I was praying with it yesterday, the reality that so forcefully hit me (in a way it had not before) is that we are never justified in saying that something we are asked to do for the common good…for the sake of love of God and our brothers and sisters – not matter what it is – is beneath us

We are often obsessed with protecting our dignity. It is easy for us to think certain things we are asked to do are beneath us….are not befitting our particular station.

What stuck me so clearly as I sat with the words of the passage – reflecting on Jesus who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” but rather “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” – is that there is absolutely nothing, no matter how beneath us it may seem, that compares to what Jesus did. Nothing can be so far beneath us so as to compare with Jesus’ humbling himself by taking on human form.

This passage is something of a reality check for our reactions. If there is some good reason for us to do a particular task or put ourself in a particular position – something that helps others, that promotes the common good – we can never use the excuse that it is beneath us. Jesus took that excuse off the table for good.


Pride and Curiosity

Although not every day, some mornings I use Shane Claiborne et al’s, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals during my morning prayer. The morning prayer each day includes psalms, scripture readings, remembrances of significant events that occurred on that day, and often a quote from a saint.

Yesterday morning, the quote was from Bernard of Clairvaux, the first sentence of which caused me to raise an eyebrow. It read, “The first step of pride is curiosity.” I paused, since I don’t tend to associate curiosity with pride.

When I read the entire quote, however, the juxtaposition made more sense. Bernard wrote,

The first step of pride is curiosity. How does it show itself? Here is an example. There stands a monk who up to this time had every appearance of being an excellent monk. Now you begin to notice that wherever he is, standing, walking, sitting, his eyes are wandering, his glance darts right and left, his ears are cocked. Some change has taken place in him; every movement shows it. These symptoms show that the monastic’s soul has caught some disease. One who used to watch over his own conduct now is all watchfulness for others.

Curiosity can be a good thing. It can often be a prompt for us to learn. (Einstein’s curiosity about what it would be like for a boy to ride a beam of light led to the development of his theory of relativity.)

But the kind of curiosity Bernard warns us against is that which is constantly wondering what someone else is up to, since it is often with the motive of judging them in relation to oneself. And therein lies the pride. Look at him – he’s not praying as fervently as I am. Look at her – I work a lot harder than she does.

I suspect all of us are guilty, at least on some occasions, of that kind of curiosity. Seeing it for what it is and labeling it an aspect of pride may help us be on guard against its arising.

You Are Special, No Matter What

At UST Law School, we begin each fall and spring semester with a weekend vocation retreat for interested students. As a follow-up to the retreat, a different participant “volunteers” (i..e, with their consent, I assign each person a week) to send the rest of us an e-mail of “Spiritual Nourishment.” The messages take various forms – sharing of a reading, a poem or a prayer, some incident in the life of the person that has brought them some insight, some issue someone is dealing with – and usually also include some thing or things for which the writer is grateful.

This week, the student who distributed our weekly Spiritual Nourishment, Sam, shared an internal struggle that had been causing him some difficulty but that he had finally worked through. Since the issue he raised is not one unique to him and his realization was one we all need to attain, I asked his permission to share his thoughts, a request he graciously granted.

Sam started by talking about his battle with pride over the years, which reared its head in many different capacities, causing him to always “try to appear intelligent, clever, attractive, funny, talented, fun, and so many other great things.” When he reflected on why he was driven to want to be better than other people, he concluded that what he really desired was to feel special. He wrote:

So I thought that my problem was this desire to feel special. I have tried to drive that desire out of me, but it doesn’t seem possible. There is something intrinsic in me, something I can’t get rid of that is at the root of that desire.

This seemed to be an impossible dilemma. My pride was caused by my desire to feel special. So to get rid of my pride, I needed to get rid of my desire. But it is impossible to get rid of that desire! This is the struggle I have lived in for the past weeks.

When it finally came to him, he realized how simple was the answer to his struggle. As with so many of us who are parents, an experience with his baby gave Sam insight into how God looks at us. As he watched his baby one evening he realized that no matter what she does, he believes “she is the most beautiful baby ever” and that his love for her “has nothing to do with what she can do, it has nothing to do with how she compares to other babies. I am her father, and my love for her is unconditional.” And that realization had a profound impact. He wrote:

Then I remembered that Christ instructed us to call God our Father, and told us that God loves us as a father loves his children. It doesn’t matter how good we are at sports, how smart, attractive, funny, or whatever, we are. God loves us because He made us. And that is the answer to my struggle.

I had been working to tear this desire out of myself, thinking it was the cause of my pride. But the cause of my pride is not the desire to feel special. The cause of my pride is that I attempt to fulfill my desire with something that is not able to fulfill it. …[T]he fulfillment of that desire has nothing to do with how I value myself, or how other people value me. The only thing that can fulfill that desire is an unconditional love… What I really desire is God’s love.

We all want to feel special, and that desire manifests in many ways – some healthy and some not so healthy. My hope for you is the same as the hope Sam expressed in sending his message to us – that his experience “reverberates with some of you and can help as a reminder that you are special, no matter what!”

Two Women Meet

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Visitation, and our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It is a passage I love to hear proclaimed and that I love to pray with.

One of the things I most love about it is the picture of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. In the encounter with the Angel Gabriel in which Mary learns that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, she gets the far more important news that has “found favor with God” and that she will bear the child who is the Son of God.

What follows after this could have gone in a completely different way. Mary might have gotten all puffed up with pride and said, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be her who travels to see me. After all, I’m the one carrying the King.” And Elizabeth, the older of the two, might have been filled with jealousy, thinking “Why does Mary gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger. Surely I’m at least as good as she is.” We’ve all had enough experience of encounters marred by overinflated or bruised egos to imagine the possibilities.

Instead what happens is that the young woman who has just learned that she is to bear the Christ immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child.   And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children.  And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine what must have transpired between those two women during those months.  Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together.  Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other.   Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.

It is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.

Recognizing our Talents

At the weekly gathering of the participants doing the Lent Retreat in Daily Living at St. Hubert, we had a discussion about the difficulties so many people have acknowledging their giftedness.

During last week, one of their days of prayer focused on the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel. The questions I had asked the participants to reflect on included these: “Do I hesitate to recognize my giftedness? Am I willing to own the gifts God has given me? If I am hesitatnt to do so, what is the source of that hesitation?” I also asked the partiicpants to name at least one of the gifts God had given them and share with God how they might better use that gift to further God’s plan of salvation.

After some small group sharing of their prayer experience, when we came together for questions and discussion, sevearl people observed that this was a hard exercise, the most difficult of the prayer for that week. I think their experience is not atypical.

We have had drummed into us that we should not be prideful. We read in Scripture Jesus’ admonition to have humility. And we remember the parable of the Phrarisee and Tax Collector and, in particular, Jesus’ reaction to the pride of the Pharisee. As a result, we are worried, as one person suggested, that acknowledging our gifts is akin to “tooting our own horn.”

Jesus did warn against pride and instructed us to be humble. But he also told his disciples not to hide their light under a bushel.

We have all been gifted by God. But we cannot use those gifts if we don’t acknowledge them. It will be impossible for us to discern how we can best serve God’s plan of salation is we don’t accurately assess and own the gifts we have been given. We were given our gifts to use for the life of the world, not to hide in a closet.

One of the things I told the group is that if they can remember something else that was part of their prayer for that previous week – the first of the Beatitudes – they might find it easier to acknowlege their gifts without worrying about arrogance or pride. That is, if we truly have poverty of spirit – if we recongize our complete and utter dependence on God, then we know that the gifts are not our doing, but God’s.

Of course, we always need to be careful to be sure we are using the gifts we have been given for God’s glory and not our own, but it is important that we not shy away from recognizing those gifts.

Shining Our Lights

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus asks his disciples, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” Mark is always a man of few words and one gets a fuller appreciation of Jesus’ message in Matthew’s version of the same teaching.

In Matthew, Jesus says:

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

I prefer the Matthean version because I think the last sentence is key.

We sometimes have a tendency to hide our talents, not wanting to be guilty of the sin of pride and wanting to be humble. But while humility is a virtue, false humility is not. Effectively Jesus is telling his disciples, you weren’t given your talents to hide them. You were given them for a purpose.

We are meant to use the talents we have been given – to share them broadly – not for our own glory, but for the glory of God. What we want is for the light of our lamp to shines, not on us, but on God.

True humility comes from seeing oneself clearly and recognizing our dependence on God. From understanding that our talents are gifts from our God. And if we remember that – that all we are and all we have is a gift from our God – we will be able to freely and fully place our lamp on a lampstand withough falling prey to either false humility or to pride.