“For everyone who exults themselves will be humbled, but the ones who humble themselves will be exulted.”
There once lived a man so humble, that even the angels rejoiced at the sight of him. But, in spite of his great sanctity, he didn’t even have the slightest idea that he was holy. He just went about his humdrum and ordinary daily tasks, diffusing goodness in the same way flowers unconsciously diffuse their fragrance, and in the same way streetlights diffuse their glow.
His sanctity lay in this – that he forgot each person’s past, and looked at him or her, as they were, and he looked beyond each person’s appearance to the very center of their being, where they were innocent and blameless and too unaware to know what they were doing. Thus, he loved and forgave everyone he met – and he saw nothing extraordinary in this, for it was the result of his way of looking at people.
One day, an angel appeared and said to him, “I have been sent by the Father to you. You are to ask for anything you desire and it will be given to you. Would you wish to have the gift of healing?”
“No,” said the man, “I would prefer that Jesus did the healing!”
“Would you want the gift of preaching, so that you may bring hardened sinners back to the path of righteousness,” asked the angel?
“No,” he replied, “it’s not for me to touch human hearts. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit!”
“Would you like to be such a perfect model of virtue that people will be drawn to you,” asked the angel?
“No,” replied the man, “I will leave that to the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary.” “Besides,” added the saintly man, “then I might think too highly of myself by being the center of attention.”
“What then do you wish for?” demanded the angel.
“Just the grace of God,” was the man’s reply. “Having that, I would have all I desire.”
“No! You must ask for a miracle,” replied the angel, “or else Our Lord will be offended for not accepting His gift to you!”
“Well, then I shall ask for this:” replied the man, “let only good be done through me without me being aware of it.”
So, it was decreed by God, that the humble man’s shadow would be endowed with healing properties whenever it fell behind him. So everywhere his shadow fell – provided he had his back to it – the sick were healed, the land became fertile, fountains sprang to life, and color returned to the faces of those who were weighed down by life’s sorrows.
But the humble man knew nothing of this because the attention of the people was so centered on the shadow that they forgot about the man. And so the humble man’s wish that only good be done through him, and he be forgotten, was abundantly fulfilled.
In today’s gospel by St. Luke, Jesus chose an uncomfortable illustration to point to an eternal truth. If a quite undistinguished guest arrived early to a feast and occupied the eminent place, and if a more distinguished person then arrived, and the person who had taken the eminent place was told to step down, a most embarrassing situation resulted. If, on the other hand, a person deliberately chose the least important place, and was then asked to occupy a more distinguished place, then that person’s humility gained them all the more honor.
Humility has always been one of the characteristics of great people. St. Francis DeSales wrote that, “humility is the virtue that captures the heart of God: God remains with the humble soul like a shadow following the body.”
St. Augustine wrote that “all the other virtues knock at God’s heart, but only humility opens it.”
St. John Vianney once said that “humility is to the other virtues what the links of a chain are to the rosary beads – without humility, the other virtues cannot remain together.”
And St. Bernard wrote about the Blessed Virgin Mary that “Mary greatly pleased God because of her purity, but it was her humility that God chose Her to be His mother.”
The moral virtue of humility is, unfortunately, a most misunderstood virtue. Humility, because of its spelling, is often confused with humiliation, and consequently, humility is often misunderstood to be an indifferent or resigned attitude of accepting personal embarrassment.
This, of course, like all evil, has a partial element of truth to it. But the correct understanding of this moral virtue is the willful and honest submission of the mind and heart to God’s holy will. In other words, if a person proceeds to undertake a noble task, and successfully completes this noble task, let’s say for instance, composing a beautiful song or writing a brilliant novel, then that person can react, for the most part, in one of three ways when they are complemented for it.
First, they may freely admit that they successfully performed a noble task, but then take ALL the credit themselves. This would be a sin of excess against the moral virtue of humility called pride. Or secondly, they may intentionally downplay or even refuse to admit they successfully performed the noble task in order to appear humble. This would be a sin of defect against the moral virtue of humility called false humility. And thirdly, on the other hand, the person may freely admit that they successfully performed a noble task, but in their true humility, they would give most of the credit to God, and perhaps others if necessary, for the grace and talent to carry out that noble endeavor. This, then, would be the balance (or the perfect performance) of the moral virtue of humility, containing neither excess nor defect. True humility is, in turn, driven by the cardinal virtue of prudence, which is the practice and effort of knowing how to act in accord with Gospel Truth. (You can’t act virtuously unless you first know HOW to act virtuously.)
The moral virtue of humility would also apply if that same person, in their attempt to perform a noble act, failed in their attempt. The truly humble person would accept their failure, without pointing fingers at others, and admit to themselves and others, that for whatever reason, it just wasn’t God’s Will that they should succeed, at that particular point in time – in other words, it just wasn’t meant to be! In this respect, we need to remind ourselves that the success of Jesus Christ’s resurrection came only through His apparent failure of dying on the Cross. The Cross always precedes the Resurrection. St. Mother Teresa always insisted that God doesn’t necessarily want us to be successful; all He wants of us is to be faithful!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, how may we acquire and retain the moral virtue of humility? First and foremost, since humility is a moral virtue, as is the case with all moral and cardinal virtues, we must acquire it through effort and practice. Moral virtues like humility and cardinal virtues like prudence, are not infused into our souls as is the case with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity – which are supernaturally infused into our souls at our baptism, as free gifts from God. It’s a nice and pious thought to believe that all we have to do is say a few prayers and ask God to infuse us with humility, or other moral and cardinal virtues, and then expect to be struck by a lightning bolt from heaven or shot with an arrow by God, and be filled with that virtue. Not so! It just doesn’t work that way. God always gives us the grace to acquire moral and cardinal virtues, but the grace He gives us is to make the attempt to acquire these virtues through effort and practice, so they become second nature to us. If you want to grow in humility, then practice being humble. If you want to grow in patience, then practice being patient. God’s grace is always sufficient! All we have to do is cooperate with it, by nurturing our Faith and carrying it out prudently by knowing how to act virtuously.
And to retain our humility, we can do two simple things. First, we can retain it by just being honest with ourselves and God. No matter how much we know and however much we accomplish, we still know and do very little compared to the total sum of knowledge and achievement. However important we may believe ourselves to be, when death comes, we will stand alone before Christ to be judged, and life on earth will go on just the same.
And secondly, we can always retain our humility by comparing ourselves to perfection. It’s when we see and hear the expert that we realize how limited our own performance truly compares. Many a person has refrained from appearing in public again after hearing a master musician, orator, or actor perform. Many a preacher has been humbled when they’ve heard a real saint of God preach.
And if we compare our lives to the lives of Jesus, and Mary for that matter, then we will come to understand our limitations in comparison with their stainless humility, and hopefully, our pride will subside and our self-reliance with wither away.
Mary, virgin most humble, pray for us!
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Sunday, August 28th, 2016
Luke 14: 1, 7-14