False Humility is Veiled Pride

Humility describes in one word our unqualified and absolute status before God. From this solid and unshakable relationship with God, we can form an analogous humility, let’s call it “modesty”, which allows us to find our proper relationships to others and our place in the world. Humility is truth about oneself through God’s eyes; what I can and can’t do, my strengths and weaknesses.

We all recognize the value and importance of this self-knowledge, but the pain that comes with learning the truth about ourselves leads us to avoid it. As a result, we talk about humility in confusing and roundabout ways. We resort to the veiled arrogance of “humble-bragging”, where casual words are used to draw attention to one’s high status or achievement: “I had a bad year and was only able to contribute [insert a very large sum here] to charity.” The veil between the humble and the brag is very thin, but apparently is a thing on social media lately. Throwing out a comment about how hard it was to complete a strenuous Lenten fast can be sham piety. Related to this is the manipulation of others for validation: “Oh, this old thing?” or “I don’t know if this is going to be any good, but here it is”.

Choosing to reject God’s knowledge of my true strengths and weakness is an act of pride which says, “I know better than God”, but the result is that I invent my own “sham status” which inevitably results in both over- and under-estimates of my true value. Rejecting limitations can lead to an arrogance of freedom to do anything and be anything and control everything. On the other hand, not knowing my true strengths opens the door to allow others to control my status inappropriately, as might happen with a celebrity who believes all the fawning publicity he hears, or one who becomes sad and anxious as the “likes” on social media decline.

I am both vanishingly small next to the infinite God and I have unimaginable potential for greatness. Humility before God reveals both potential for greatness and limitations on ambitions. In other words, humility reveals knowledge that lets me become the person that I am meant to be. Spend a few minutes every day in prayer, asking for the humility that gives insight into your strengths and weaknesses and for the courage to act on what you learn. From that will come a modesty in your daily life that will be a great benefit to you and those around you.

Humility is Relationship

Humility is a word that describes a relationship: one person is humble in comparison to another. In Christianity, humility describes first my relationship to God and then to others. I am humble next to God who created me out of nothing, a small mortal creature virtually lost in a vast universe. My status compared to God is next to nothing; I have more in common with a slug than with God. I would utterly disappear in the vastness of creation except for one thing: I am created in His image, capable of partaking in His divine nature.

This puts me in a unique position: small in size but vast in meaning. The Psalmist says it better than I can:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of your fingers,  	
the moon and the stars which you have established;  
what is man that you are mindful of him,  	
and the son of man that you care for him?  
Yet you have made him little less than God (elohim),  	
and crowned him with glory and honor.  
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;  	
you have put all things under his feet. (Ps 8, RSV)  

If this doesn’t set you back a bit, you’re not paying attention. But wait, there’s more. Christianity tells us that we are created for divinization (not divination, “summoning the spirits to read the future”), which is for each person to partake in some way in God’s divine nature. Divinization does not replace our human nature but perfects it by joining it to God’s divine nature. I do not become God, rather, by participating in His nature, I become more perfectly myself. I move toward greatheartedness, the courage to seek what is great and to be worthy of it, being generous and affirming and encouraging others to share in it.

Here’s the crazy part. This divinization happens only when we permit ourselves to be completely humbled by God. With God, our status is absolute and from this, our status with respect to others become clear. When meeting in the doctor’s office, the bank president is humble, but when the doctor seeks a loan from the bank, the relationship is reversed. In the context of the absolute humility before God, the relative humility between others is easier to accept.

However, if the humility before God is refused, pride tempts us to refuse humility to others. Ambition then pushes the boundaries, even to the point of harming ourselves and others for the sake of our pride. Striking an attitude of pride before God blocks the connection with Him. Loss of that connection dims the spark of divinity within and the potential for greatness is diminished. In the end, the struggle for status between persons becomes muddled, hierarchies becomes rigid and power struggles grow. We wither rather than flourish.

Humility teaches me truth about who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, what I can and cannot do. In other words, it describes my proper status in the world so that I am properly oriented toward my authentic growth.

Humility is Truth

Humility has gained a negative sense: a quick glance through some synonyms includes abasement, bashfulness, diffidence, docility, lowliness, meekness for starters. Not very exciting. Antonyms listed include confidence, boldness and assertiveness. Embracing only the negative idea of humility leads to the doormat syndrome; “go ahead, walk all over me!” All in all, advising humility as a virtue is a tough sell when there is lots of “don’t let anyone tell you what to do” or “be loud and proud” floating around.

Humility is seeing oneself through God’s eyes, as a created being made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). Humans are created to do great things, being designed to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). In fact, the Psalm 8 tells us that we are “made a little lower than God (elohim)”. However, we are human, not God, so humility acknowledges that we have distinct limitations. Humility is first an attitude toward God, then toward other people. It might feel odd, but it turns out that our fullest potential as humans begins with the smallest act of humility; simple openness and obedience to God’s nudges.

In the end, humility is simply the truth about yourself. With more knowledge comes greater awareness of both your potential and your limitations. From this a great spigot of human creativity and ingenuity is opened.

Spiritual Not Religious

There is a distinction between spirituality and religion; spirituality is private while religion comes with a history and a set of beliefs and behaviors which has arisen from the gradual distillation of the experiences of many generations of believers in different cultures which are gathered into a shared memory that provides a map and language of the transcendent spiritual world that guides and channels spirituality. There is a tendency to present them in opposition to each other; spirituality is pure and clean while religion has been misused to justify bad behavior and thus is contaminated and even dirty. This opposition loosens the important and even necessary connection between the community of believers and a relationship with God.

Religion presents a package of beliefs and behaviors that need to be taken as a piece, the hard with the easy, the convenient with the inconvenient. Claiming to be spiritual but not religious has the effect of breaking that package apart, pushing aside the parts that are inconvenient or unpleasant. It becomes easier to ignore values and behaviors that are important to the community and to me as well. Religion imposes a discipline which resists the constant erosion of important values by pride or greed or laziness or bad habits or anything that drags me away from my most authentic self.

Religion’s map of the spiritual world leads us forward to our destiny, which in the Christian tradition is to “participate in the life of God”. This map shows us the dead-ends and impassible swamps that need to be avoided. The shared language of this collective memory forms the community that we all depend on for aid. There are many who sense and are seeking the transcendent reality that surrounds us but without a spiritual map, the newcomer’s spiritual travels will be meandering and circuitous. Without a common language, it will be lonely. Following the late, great philosopher Frank Sinatra’s ethos of, “I Did It My Way” works for a few, but for most the likelihood of becoming lost and lonely is high.

Be not mistaken; religions have issues, but the most authentic spirituality embraces the community of believers, putting down deep roots in a tradition which constantly nudges us back when we stray and prods us on to our fullest human flourishing.

Stern as Death is Love

I found this recently from the Song of Solomon written around 300-500 BC;

Set me as a seal on your heart,
  as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
  relentless as the nether world is devotion;
  its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
  nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
  he would be roundly mocked. (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

“Stern as death is love”. This takes direct aim at a common misconception; love is likable. Yes, sometimes it is but this passage shows us a different face of love. There are 23 synonyms of “stern”, defined as “unrelenting in assertion of authority and exercise of discipline” which includes serious, unsmiling, severe, forbidding, grim, grave, sober, dour, stony and flinty. There are another 18 synonyms defined as “strict and severe, using extreme measures or terms”. And remember, the passage says not just “stern is love”, but “stern as death is love”. That’s pretty stern!

It gets worse. The next line is “Relentless as the nether world is devotion”. Relentless as “oppressively constant or incessant” gets 50 synonyms like “unremitting, stubborn, nonstop, tenacious” and 34 more under “harsh or inflexible”. Again, the passage says not just “relentless is devotion” but “relentless as the netherworld is devotion”. We’re talking about a sort of hell here.

This is a paradox. Love is dangerous; it could lead anywhere. Love is necessary; we are commanded to love each other. We must love knowing that it could land us in a hellish situation. Love, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “willing the good of the other as other”. Love is likeable when what is truly good for the someone else happens to be pleasant for me. Love is less likeable when what is truly good for someone else is painful to me. What is evil is to burden another by appealing to love in order to simply satisfy my pleasures.

The love that God commands here is the up-side-down love that Jesus shows us on his cross, where the unloved will be loved, the first shall be last, the weak shall be strong and the dead shall rise. We call it “upside-down”, but really, it is making “right-side-up” what went wrong long ago when sin entered the world.

This reading speaks directly to Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ love was “stern as death”; his love for us caused his death on Good Friday. Jesus’ devotion to us was “relentless as the underworld”; he descended into Hell on Holy Saturday. His love righted a wrong by following his Father’s will: “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30). This was more than a vague obedience to an order, it was an active embrace of his mission: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:18). So, there we have it. Jesus set a high bar for me; not just to endure, but to embrace and even own the stern and relentless consequences of love in obedience to our Father in order to right an upside-down world.

Are People Good? Or Bad? Yes!

“He chose poorly.”

In the Creation story of Genesis 1-3, humans enter life in the Garden of Eden, aka Paradise. Then, something happened.

Like all good stories, this story describes the scene, introduces the characters, sets the stage, and then, something happens that defines the rest of the story. The stage is the Garden of Eden, aka Paradise. The characters are the man and woman “created in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27). Because they walk with their Creator “in the cool of the evening” (Gen 3:8), they have an intimate connection with him. The stage is set with the instruction to not eat of a particular tree in the Garden. And then, Something Happens. Being created in God’s likeness, they have free will. They are presented with a choice, and, as the Grail Knight observed to Indiana Jones about Walter Donovan, “He chose poorly”.

Subsequently, the ugly rejection that we call “sin” ended their intimate contact with God, thus losing supernatural goodness and obscuring their natural goodness. Note that we retain a natural capacity for goodness, such as altruism and kindness and humility that is obscured but not destroyed. That natural goodness is more visible in some and less so in others. Appearances can be deceiving; a dour and grumpy appearance may hide a generous soul and a pleasant and cheerful face may hide a manipulative, devious soul.

This natural goodness works fine for some and even many situations, but there are those impossible tasks that we must perform, those unbearable burdens that need to be borne, the most unlovable who need to be loved. In those cases, we need the supernatural gift called “grace” that goes beyond the natural, to be able to forgive those unforgivable offenses, to tackle the impossible tasks, to shoulder the unbearable burden, to love the most unlovable. Our natural goodness is indeed good, but it is easily overwhelmed and needs the divine assistance of grace.

Are humans good? Yes. Are humans bad? Yes. The Genesis account suggests that the goodness is more fundamental to our creation and that the bad came later. While we can “get by” with a natural goodness, we are destined for so much more. It takes a deeply humbled spirit to embrace the supernatural goodness that is needed for our fullest flourishing.

Tolerance or Forbearance?

Pope Francis, in his recent pastoral exhortation Laetitia amoris tells us that:

The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgments.

He also tells us that:

in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur . . . A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel.  (307).

We all get to read those statements with our own prejudices. Those who lean “progressive” read the first and skip the second. Those who support “traditionalism” read it the opposite.

The Gospels show us Jesus preaching hope to “the sinners,” that is, those outside the Jewish religious community. Recall, however, that Jesus also preached strong judgment against those inside the community if they failed to follow God’s intent for the Law. Those who claim to be part of the Church today should feel the sting of that judgment. The path to holiness is marked by mistakes and arrogance in spite of all the graces that have been given to the Church. The simple fact is that we’re all sinners, both in and outside the Church.

God in not tolerant of sin; rather, he forbears to pass judgment while giving the sinner a chance to repent. The clergy have a holy and non-negotiable obligation to lovingly encourage and even pressure every single person in the parish to conform their lives to the Gospel. The more that the Church imitates Christ in his embrace of sinners into the community of the Church, the more demanding that the preaching of the Gospel needs to be.

Jesus was merciful to those who needed mercy and pulled no punches to those who needed judgment. The pastor wields a lash to the insider and offers a hope to the outsider. When a parishioner complains that he feels “judged,” the pastor needs to ask himself: Has he judged wisely according to the teachings of the Church, setting aside his own biases and opinions? Has he spread out the lash of judgment evenly across all parishioners (including himself)? Have his words and actions given his parishioners (and himself) hope by clear teaching and adequate opportunity to repent? If he can answer “yes,” then he can do no more than to encourage the individual to patiently and humbly endure the judgment and remain open to God’s healing grace. If the individual instead separates himself from the Church’s judgment, the pastor is left with the gnawing pain of “What could I have done differently?” This is a sacrifice which needs to be joined to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and through that suffering, come to a deeper and better understanding of God’s grace and healing power in himself.

Transformation Delayed

Throughout the Bible, we are called to be transformed. I have been reading the Gospel of Mark and was struck by the repeated refusals of transformation found there. The obvious examples are the Pharisees who wished only to uphold the law in its entirety and were used by Jesus as a foil as he taught his disciples. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees starts immediately in 2:8 with the scribes “questioning (dialogizomai)” Jesus’ claim that he forgives sin as he is healing the paralytic man. This word is translated in the RSV as “discussed” in 8:16 as the disciples are trying to understand why Jesus told them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and again in 9:34 when they were “discussing” who would be greatest. and finally, in 11:31, as the chief priests “argued” with one another after Jesus challenged them about the source of John’s authority. Strong’s dictionary defines dialogizomai as “to deliberate, reason.” Attempting to approach Jesus with human rationality alone is simply inadequate. Until we want to see, until we approach Jesus with humility and faith, we will not see.

Jesus’ rebukes were delivered, however, not just to the Pharisees, but to the apostles themselves. He grieved the “hardness of heart” (pōrōsis kardia) of the Pharisees before healing a man (3:5) but then rebuked the disciples with those exact same words twice (6:52 and 8:17). They followed Jesus when they were called, but their apparent obtuseness as they were being taught presented a challenge. After calming the storm (4:40), he asks “Have you no faith?”. Upon being questioned about ritual handwashing, he asks his disciples “Are you so lacking in understanding?” (7:18). Jesus exclaims “Oh, faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” after his disciples fail to heal the boy with the spirit (9:19). What does it take, we want to ask, to pound this into their thick skulls? Jesus has to interrupt an argument about who would be the greatest (9:35), only to promptly rebuke James and John for doing exactly the same thing (10:43). The disciples were puzzled at the anointing of Jesus (14:4) and even Peter, after confessing the Jesus as the Messiah was rebuked moments later (8:31-33) for wanting the Messiah without the suffering and he went on to deny Jesus 3 times (14:66-72). The disciples sleep at Gethsemane (14:32-42) and after he had risen, he appeared to them and upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart (sklerokardia) (10:5).

We see from this a pattern of repetition that it takes time for us to fully absorb the meaning of God’s acts. The blind man of Bethsaida was healed, but not all at once, requiring a second effort (8:22-25). He gained his sight in stages, as we gain full understanding of the Gospel message a bit at a time. God acts in history. He reveals himself over time, repeatedly enjoins secrecy (1:34, 1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:30; 9:9,30), understanding that his message would take time to fully develop. Only in the Resurrection would the full meaning of his words and acts be revealed. We, with the apostles, suffer from “hardened heart”. We, like the apostles, don’t get quite it and until we do, Jesus displays patient forbearance as we, along with the apostles, slowly plod along towards him. So, confess your sins, pray for the gift of humble obedience and don’t give up!

Humility = Doormat?

Humility is a difficult concept for us to grasp. We use humility as synonym for “doormat,” letting others do anything they want to us. On the contrary, we are taught to “hitch your wagon to a star” and “don’t listen to what others say” and “do your own thing.” 

The opposite of this, however, is not a “doormat” humility that lets others walk over us. Such a false humility denies our capacity to choose our own actions and gives the other inappropriate control over what is properly ours. Jesus taught us true humility in the paradox of his death. The Gospels emphasize again and again his obedience to his Father’s will. This strikes our modern sensibilities as perverse and bizarre, but Jesus in his humility and obedience to his Father released an explosion of spiritual energy that reverberates to this day.

The deepest and truest humility recognizes our creatureliness and orients us to a right relationship with our Creator. Out of the right relationship with God comes right relationship with others and an objective vision of reality as it is. Humility frees us from falseness, to be our authentic self that we were created to be.

Childish and childlike

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. ” (Mat 18:3-4) (NRSV)

Jesus emphasizes the importance of being like a child.  However, when I observe children, I observe much that isn’t very pleasant.  It is important to not confuse “child-like” with “childish” behaviors.

Childish behavior is rooted in selfishness which demands the immediate satisfaction of some perceived need. It is petty and impulsive, refusing to cooperate and throwing tantrums to punish anyone who opposes it. Child-like behavior arises from love which seeks the good of the other. It trusts the parental love which promotes great-heartedness.

This sort of trust doesn’t come easily. It calls for the obedience modeled by Jesus trusting his Father through his Passion, to Hell and back, and finally to the Resurrection.