22nd Sunday in OT / C / 2019
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
Our readings today are about humility—a fundamental virtue in the moral and spiritual life. Bernard of Clairvaux, when asked the most important Christian virtues, said, "humility, humility, humility." Catherine of Siena had a vision in which the Lord said to her, "I am, and you are not." St. Paul says, "What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting?" C. S. Lewis summed it up this way: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."
The fundamental problem is our ego . . . and this is where the spiritual tradition can help us. Virtually every religious tradition has a teaching on humility; all of the religious traditions recognize the danger of an unbridled ego. How many classic works of literature or theater have to do with the downfall of some powerful figure because of the ego?
Of course, our natural instinct is to preserve and protect the ego. 1) To always put the best foot forward, 2) to always present ourselves as perfect, 3) to construct stories about ourselves that will garner praise, 4) to seek positions that will make people admire us, 5) to make sure that no one ever discovers who we really are, 6) to surround ourselves with only the most beautiful people, 7) to live and dress in a way that will always grab attention, and so on!
But beware: living in this manner can take its toll. One person described the ego as "the monkey" on our back, that has to be pampered, and fed, and stroked, and obeyed at all cost. This monkey drives us to maintain the perfect façade, and it never leaves us in peace.
I’m reminded here of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the spiritual exercises that are a part of the Jesuit tradition. St. Ignatius came from a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was a soldier in his early life; but after being wounded in battle, and a long convalescence, he
underwent a conversion that changed everything about him. He withdrew from courtly life and went to Manresa, Spain, where he spent a year of prayer and penance in a cave.
One thing Ignatius dealt with was his ego: his pride, his attachments to wealth, power, and pleasure.
Before his conversion, Ignatius was obsessed with his appearance, with the honor of being a courtier, with the power of military rank, with the pleasures of lust, and so on.
To counter these tendencies of the ego, he developed a spiritual exercise he called agere contra—to act against; that is, if you are tempted toward something, run the other way.
So . . . 1) Because Ignatius was concerned about his appearance, he let it go, let his hair grow long and dressed in rags. 2) Because he loved money, he gave it away. 3) Because he was lustful, he became a complete celibate. And so on.
Agere contra. To act against. He compared this exercise to making a crooked branch straight: you bend it further backward so that it snaps back straight.
And that brings us to the Gospel. Isn’t it interesting that the same prideful tendencies of our day were present at the time of Jesus: we all want the place of honor. But Jesus tells us, as did St. Ignatius: agere contra. To act against. Take the extreme, lowest position, train yourself in humility, and see what happens.
In the spiritual life, we call this detachment, no longer bound by our ego. Such detachment frees us from the never-ending chase for power, money, honor, pleasure.
To humble ourselves . . . and be exalted.