Wednesday, February 2, 2011

11-01-30: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13 / Psalm 146 / 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 / Matthew 5:1-12
Humility is a paramount virtue in Christianity, exemplified in today’s reading from Paul, who tells us God uses the weak, the low-born, the despised and the foolish to teach us how to live and to love – to teach us how to be happy. Humility, you might say, is what separates the nobodys of this world from the somebodys. There’s a paradox though: you don’t know who’s a nobody until he becomes a somebody.

Then there’s the further complication regarding humility: the more you try to be humble, the less likely you are to succeed. I remember once being assigned with a priest, a good sincere man who wanted to live a simple austere life – his way of practicing humility. The day he moved into the rectory, much to his chagrin, he found a full size bed in his room. He immediately told the pastor that he really couldn’t have a full size bed; a single twin bed would be more appropriate for him. So, in order to help the priest feel more humble and poor, the pastor had to buy a brand new single bed and pay for the removal of the very good and little-used full size bed. The priest was not a hypocrite, just someone who perhaps tried too hard to be humble. It seems that we best practice humility by embracing what is made immediately present to us rather than creating our own litmus tests.

One of the most attractive aspects of the recently released film, The King’s Speech, was the unexpected example of just that on the part of someone you would least expect to be humble - the King of England. When Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 “for the woman he loved,” his younger brother, Albert, was next in line to the throne. This upheaval in the line of succession couldn’t have happened at a worse moment in history as Hitler’s Nazi Party was solidifying power and moving the world ever closer to war. In Hitler, Germany had a remarkable orator, someone who could rouse a nation to such an extent that people would follow him to the precipice and then jump. Meanwhile as Albert, the Duke of York, was about to succeed to the British throne as George VI, a nation looked for inspiration from him and discovered instead a nervous stammerer, a man who couldn’t utter a full sentence in public without severely stuttering, causing those who were listening to him uncomfortable embarrassment and causing himself deep shame. The film examines how Albert dealt with this very personal humiliation. It is a sublime example of what it means to be humble.

“Humility is truth,” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in her Story of a Soul, and it is in our deeply personal flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings that each of us is given the choice to face humiliation or run away from it. The practice of humility is not something you can learn from a book or get an advanced degree in – it is a lived experience which reveals to each the measure of his worth. How do you know if you’re on the right track? That may not be so easy. But you’ll know if you made a wrong turn along the way when you end up displaying humility’s opposite - pride. Pride, not in the sense of feeling good for another’s accomplishments or even your own, but pride as a response to hurt and humiliation.

Jazz artist, Nina Simone, seemed to have gotten it just right in the lyrics of a little known piece she sang - You’ve Got To Learn. You’ve got to learn, although it’s very hard, the way of pocketing your pride/ sometimes face humiliation while you are burning up inside. You’ve got to learn to leave the table / when love’s no longer being served. To show everybody that you’re able / to leave without saying a word. But why would you want to? The Gospel of the Beatitudes, that most revolutionary of documents, gives us a hint: Blessedness, real happiness, sublime joy, comes only when we learn to face our personal humiliations. And each of us has them, from the broken-hearted young lover to the king who stammers. The key to happiness, the gospel promises, lies in the recognition, the self-awareness, that in some very personal way we are each low-born, despised, weak and foolish. We are all nobodys whom God calls to become somebodys through the difficult but high-calling of the practice of humility.

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