Sunday, 29 August 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Have you heard this alternative story about four people who went to see the Wizard of Oz to ask for gifts and these four were not Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion. One asked for valour, the second for courage, the third for patience and finally the last for humility. Guess who went away looking like the Ugly Duckling?

It is a joke but never mind if you did not get it because it was just an illustration of the theme of this Sunday’s readings. In general, they point in the direction of humility. The first reading praises the person who is humble, a person who is conscious of who he really is. This person will find favour with God. It ties in with the Gospel where the key phrase is “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted”.

However, in a world where cosmetics is champion, humility is certainly a virtue that is best forgotten or ignored like the Ugly Duckling. And yet, it was humility that saved the world. Christ humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. The second reading does not exactly put it in that way but it certainly gives the impression that the gathering of the New Jerusalem is around the Mediator of the New Covenant. Who is He but the one who is humble, whom God has exalted and given a name which is above every name and at whose name, all creation must bend.

If humility saves the world and yet we are caught in a world which views humility as the Ugly Duckling, how can we better appreciate the humility necessary for the salvation of our souls?

St Ignatius speaks of humility as three modes of being. The first mode of humility is characterised by lowering myself in as much as I can, so that I will be obedient to God’s law. In this mode of humility, I will not commit mortal sin. This basically characterises many of us. We try to live decent lives and not commit mortal sins. The second mode of humility is better than the first as it consists of a “detached” disposition. In as much as God can be glorified and my salvation can be assured, I choose neither poverty nor riches, neither honour nor dishonour, neither long life nor short life. The analogy here is the equilibrium of a see-saw. And here, I would not commit a venial sin. It is the nature of holiness that when we embark upon the path of holiness, not only do we try to refrain from mortal sins, we also try to conquer venial sins It is an ascetical ascent as we dispose ourselves to God’s grace. But, for many of us, the difficulty might be in the commission of venial sins. We are too attached to them to let go. For example, gossip is a sin too delicious to let go of. Finally, the third mode of humility consists of this: All things being equal, for the greater glory of God and for the salvation of my soul, I desire and choose to be with Christ poor rather than wealth, contempt with Christ laden with it rather than honours. Even further, I desire to be regarded as a useless tool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such, rather than a wise and prudent person in this world. This is close identification as I choose to follow Christ on the royal road to Calvary.

Now, not only do we live in a world where cosmetics is champion, we also live in a world where competition is champion. For example, those of us who give the “middle finger” at a car that cuts into our lane, we may view it as a venial sin which we no longer think twice of committing. But, a closer inspection will reveal that it is not so much a venial sin as it represents an insatiable need to win. Tell me you have never purposely inched your way closer to the car in front of you so that the car in the emergency lane cannot cut into yours? Of course, you reason that the manners of Malaysian drivers leave much to be desired and that is why you will not allow the person in but still, the real rationale is because we do not want to be a loser—the one who has no guts to challenge the other driver. Humility = weakness.

The truth is, it is not a mark of humility to let the other person through. It is not a mark of humility that sends the message out: step all over me. What is humility is perhaps the curbing of our desire to win all the time. And it cuts across every facet of our lives and not just our driving etiquette. In arguments, I do not need to have the last word. Let me give an example. By telling you this story, I think I am going to “sin”. At our recent pilgrimage in Lourdes, I had a fall in the toilet. According to an email sent to me, I fell because I was pissed drunk. I attempted to reply to the email but it back-fired. Finally, I just left it at that. Why? I did not have to justify myself and more importantly, there was no need to win the argument. Now why have I “sinned”? I am well aware that even by this little revelation I have “attempted to justify myself”. I seemed to have the last word! The point is, between friends, siblings and spouses—this is often the scenario—the need to justify or have the last word.

This is where we need to differentiate between “neurosis” and “kenosis”. Humility is self-emptying—kenosis—like Christ who emptied Himself of His divinity. But, some of us may mistake “neurosis” to be “kenosis”. What is neurosis? Let me give a working definition. Let us say we have a student who is a masochist and a teacher who is a sadist. At the end of the year, the teacher decides not to set an exam. Everyone cheers except this one student, the masochist. Humility and suffering are companions and the point is that not all suffering endured is humility. It could just be a neurosis; much like the masochistic student who loved to be "punished" with exams.

A holy priest in Manila used to remark that those who seek humility may be sinful. His explanation was that in order for us to feel humble, somebody has to sin. There is truth in what he said. Neurosis is a false sense of humility and there is a thin line between neurosis and kenosis. Here, the Ignatian principle might help. “All things being equal” meaning that if it does not involve sin, then we choose to stand with Christ humiliated. This is where true kenosis is. A suitable interpretation to explain this is when a situation is really beyond our control, it is when we begin to exercise humility. Humiliation is not something we actively search for but whenever we choose to follow Christ, be assured that there will be humiliation.

Finally, humility as a virtue needs to be supported by the Resurrection. Perhaps, humility’s struggle to be accepted as a viable virtue is but a reflexion of our struggle in believing the Resurrection. In a world where competition has gone wrong, humility is crowded out because we believe that the last and final word must be uttered in this world. But we are assured by the Gospel. “When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again. The final word does not need be uttered in this world because the Resurrection gives us the assurance that our faith will be vindicated. Thus, to be truly humble, you need to hold to the truth of the Resurrection.