Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Foundation of the Christian Life - Homily for August 28

A few years ago a trilogy of books was put out and movies subsequently made about them titled Divergent. It was set as a future of America, more or less, where society had kind of crumbled and they were living a completely type of different state than what we would be used to. Rather than individuals being part of a complex social system, society was divided up into five specific groups. There were individuals who kind of represented five essential characteristics or virtues of the human person. But it was a taken to an extreme, and each of those individual groups were called to live out that extreme to the highest. There were the Dauntless who embodied the virtue of courage to an extreme of craziness, such that it was almost a rule for them to have tattoos and wild hair and had to jump off of trains as their mode of common transportation - it was kind of bizarre. There the Erudite whose entire life was consumed with knowledge and education. There were other groups as well, and then there was one group called the Abnegation. They were the extreme embodiment of selflessness or humility. They were required to wear drab gray clothing, rather than bright colors that might indicate something special. They were required to have a certain hairstyle, not to have fancy things, nice things or many things, but rather to be abundantly simple. You were unable to express your gifts and to use the good things that were part of your own natural life because you were Abnegation. You had to necessarily quench and reject all of those things. Whenever you were in the presence of members of the four other branches of the society, the Abnegations were always the ones who had to had to step back and defer to the other groups. 

I mention that because this weekend we hear the words of scripture inviting us to reflect upon humility, and often time when we hear "humility" we think the "abnegation" - we have to have the drab gray clothing, a sense of unable to be .......*TRAIN!!!*....... Anywho, when we think about humility, we often think of that extreme version. "O yea ... you know ... I'm not really good at that. I don't really have that gift." It's this false humility that basically is a lie. When St. Benedict - the founder of Western monasticism of the great Benedictine monasteries - was writing his rule on the monks and their gifts, he said it would be a shame, even more a sin against God if a monk who had a good voice intentionally neglected it because he didn't want it to stick out. It would be a sin for one to reject their gifts that were rightfully given to them by God. And unfortunately that's what we can think humility is - a rejection of the gift that is something that could lift us up, that could exalt us. 

St. Thomas Aquinas said to recognize truth and to live truth was humility; to be humble was to recognize that every single one of us was created in the image and likeness of God - that we are created for heavenly life. But at the same time, on account of our sins, we deserve hell. But on the other hand, Christ has saved us and redeemed us. And by the gift of Baptism we are heirs to the kingdom of God, but we have to work and labor for it. So it's recognizing the truth that I am a sinner who is called to be a saint. 

St. Theresa of Avila, when she was in her own convent with the Carmelites, she was struggling with how to live out humility herself as a religious sisters. One day she asked the Lord point blank in prayer, "Lord, what is humility?" and the Lord Jesus responded to her, "Knowing what you can do and knowing what I can do." Knowing what you can do - and the limits thereof - and knowing what I can do and the fact that there are no limits to it. That's humility. It's knowing that in our weakness, we have many great gifts that come from God, but they rely upon Him. Everything is reliant upon the Lord Jesus. That's humility - not this false humility that rejects all of the goodness in us, but a recognition of the good and where it comes from.

Humility is very important in the Christian life. It's not one of the virtues that's taken among all the virtues. It's the most important virtue of all. Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, a great doctor of the Church. He was a man who lived a life of revelry, of partying, of debauchery. But he was converted. He became a great priest and bishop of the Church, one of the most profound bishops. He was a writer that was absolutely incredible at his writings. Sixteen hundred years later and we still haven't translated them all into English, so prolific was he. A profound writer. And as he was reflecting on the spiritual life, he came to the understanding in his prayer and said that if we don't have humility, every other virtue that we appear to have is a lie. Because every other virtue I appear to have, if I don't have humility, ultimately is just about me. It could look really good on the outside - it could look positively saintly on the outside - but without humility, it's really about me. 

That's humility - the call to us to be humble before the Lord. It's the foundation of the Christian life. It's our everything because it's the first place that Christ comes to redeem us. In the Fall, their first sin was a sin of pride, the sin of exalting themselves, and it's the Lord who came and humbled the Lord. But in response, the Lord Jesus comes to undo that same sin, and what is the remedy? Humility and obedience to the Father. He comes, empties himself and takes on our flesh, and saves us. Without humility, we are lost, and only with humility are we saved. So we must have it, but how do we get it? How do we grow in this virtue that's the foundation of everything that we do and are as Christians. 

St. Benedict has this nice little 12 step approach where you can climb the ladder of humility. I have a hard time remembering three points quite often, so I don't expect you to remember twelve points, so if you want to find them out, you can find it HERE. I'd like to bring what he says and that part of the rule, as well as other writings, and it's emphasized in three main points. 

The first point is to pray for humility. To pray for humility is immediately to recognize that I can't do it myself. If I'm pretty sure I can make myself humble by my own will and my own choosing, I am at the height of pride. It's only the Lord who gives us the grace to be humble; it's only He who allows us that virtue to be alive in our hearts. So the Lord Jesus comes and He gives us the graces as we ask them. Pray for humility, seek it out, ask for the gift - to seek, to ask, to knock - and to know that it will be given to us. If you want a specific prayer, I encourage you in praying the Litany of Humility (found HERE), a wonderful prayer composed by a cardinal about a hundred years ago. The Litany of Humility is a profound prayer; it strikes at the root and it hurts a little bit whenever you pray it. The first time I prayed it, I felt pretty rough afterward like "Lord, we got some work to do!" The priest who first introduced me to it said that when he was given the Litany of Humility, he read through it and was so afraid to pray it that he gave it to a religious sister and asked her to pray it on his behalf. He became a good and holy priest, so apparently her prayers were effective. But it's first and foremost to pray for humility. 

The second thing is to allow humility to come forth in our speech, to allow our conversation to be marked by humility. Archbishop Fulton Sheen was remarking that in a particular chapter of one of the letters of St. Paul the words "I," "me," and "my," were a litany, where it seemed like every fourth word, something to the effect of over 30 times in a single chapter. He said these words over and over again, and at the end of the chapter he paused to reflect upon the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and how that was His glory. Archbishop Sheen said it's interesting to note the next chapter of the letter doesn't mention "I," "me," or "my" once. How often in our conversation it can turn to "I," the focus upon myself. But as we turn to the Lord and allow Him to increase humility within us, as we allow Him to convert our hearts, it becomes more about the other than about myself. And that's what the Lord calls us to - to be conscience of our words and to focus on asking the other things - to focus on you rather than I. Simply that practice trains our mind, thoughts and speech to focus on the other, but not just in those types of things but even in the midst of conversation how easy it is for our conversations to be for a purpose of us gaining something for me, and not always in a positive sense. To gain knowledge, wisdom or spiritual insight is good, but to gossip for the gain of power and authority over someone else, because you know what they did or didn't do, is not good. So to gain for ourselves in a wicked sense, an evil sense, is not of God. So the Lord too invites us there too to seek humility, to humble ourselves and focus on others that they might be exalted.

The last thing is to do things that humble us. The Lord Jesus says explicitly in scripture to go take take the lowest seat so that whenever the host comes they can say to take the higher seat, rather than to take the higher seat and have the host come and say "Hey, you're not number one, sorry," and have you move down. What a tragedy that is, what shame is experienced, humiliation, embarrassment. And so the Lord invites us to be humble, ourselves. And here's the catch, no matter what, the Lord will always allow us to gain graces of humility; it’s just a matter of whether we gain them by choosing to humble ourselves or Him sending humiliations our way. Personally, I'd like to have a little say in how I get humbled - maybe that's my pride - so I can choose the situations rather than to be unexpectedly publicly embarrassed. So for us to take up those actions of humility, so that we grow in it ourselves by our own choosing and desire, rather than to wait for someone else to knock us off our horse. 

The Lord calls us to humility in a great way, but He also shows us here at Mass. That's something that I think we can reflect upon much more deeply - the humility the Lord expresses here in this offering. He does each of those things: the prayer of humility, the words of humility, the actions of humility. The Lord Jesus invites us to come here; it's incredible in itself. Our first readings says that you're not coming to something that you can simply touch and experience. You're coming to the dwelling place of God. You're coming to the Holy City - Zion. You're coming to meet our Lord. By the simple fact that we are here today should bring us to our knees in humility, and indeed it does in various parts of the Mass. To be humbled to come and to speak with our God - to love Him and to be loved by Him. 

The prayers in the Mass, as I spoke about last weekend, invite us to humility. Lord have mercy ... Lord I'm not worthy ... Thanks be to God ... these sorts of things are the words that we speak that the Lord gives to us. I think one of the things most often and easily overlooked because it's so normal to us, regretfully, is the humility of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. St. Peter Julian Eymard, in his reflections on the Eucharist, says the fact that Jesus comes among us in the Eucharist is the highest expression of His humility. It was incredible that He came among us as flesh, but in His own flesh and blood. He could walk away, He could go away, He could do all these things whenever people came to attack Him. He could've left. But in the Eucharist, anything that happens to Him, He humbly submits. He chooses obedience to the Father, and to us. We could take the Host and toss it in the yard, throw it in the street, use it for target practice, and the Lord would not once stop us. Not once. It would be a sacrilege and very serious sin, but He wouldn’t stop us. That's the humility of Christ Jesus who loves us, who came to sacrifice Himself for us. That's the humility of Christ, and it's that humility that he invites us to - to be able to draw near to Him, to allow Him to teach us by words and by deeds, what it is to be humble, what it is to know the truth and to live it. What we can do and what God can do.