‘There is nothing more powerful than the humility of God’ (St. Augustine)
Arriving at the office one morning a few years ago, I noticed that the orange tag from the dry cleaners was still attached to the end of my suit coat. I reached down and yanked it off with an embarrassed smile. I would have thought nothing of it, and there would have been no embarrassment, had I not just finished recording a video message for a diocesan program and then given a talk to 35 women making a Cursillo weekend.
The women were kind enough not to mention the bright orange tag at the end of my sleeve — and as for the men who had recorded the video message, well, I doubt they noticed.
Vesting in the sacristy of a parish church before an ordination, I found a sheet of fabric softener stuck to the Velcro fastener on my alb. Luckily I pulled it free before putting on my chasuble and prevented the sheet from falling to the floor during Mass.
At the start of an early-morning philosophy class 45 years ago, Father Timothy announced he would not count a certain question from the previous day’s pop quiz because it had not been part of that day’s reading assignment. I raised my hand and asked with interest, “Father Timothy, what was the answer to that question?” With a “gotcha” kind of smile, he responded, “If you had read last night’s assignment, you would know.”
Understanding our merciful God
Those weren’t the first times I have embarrassed myself, and they certainly won’t be the last. But I always find it interesting to observe my own reaction when I have done or said something foolish. I pretend nothing happened or that I meant to make a fool of myself; I give in to the knee-jerk need to defend myself, to everyone’s further amusement; I am annoyed by the laughter I have caused; I am angry at myself; I laugh with everyone else, painfully aware that my foolish mistake has been exposed.
All of which is good for my humility.
If I am truly paying attention at such times I will learn from my reactions and my embarrassment — not so that I will never embarrass myself again, for I will surely do that, but so that I will come to terms with the fact that sometimes I take myself too seriously. Such experiences can help purify my motives, blunt my pride and make me more compassionate.
Our minor embarrassments pale in comparison to those times we fail utterly, when we disappoint ourselves and others, when by the prideful stubbornness of our self-will or the sheer meanness of someone who does not like us we are completely humiliated. Our reactions at such times can vary greatly, with overwhelming intensity.
A little reflection when we are embarrassed or humiliated can take us beyond a better understanding of ourselves to a deeper understanding of our merciful God and the unselfconsciousness of his love. Whether our foolishness has been exposed by a minor embarrassment or we have been utterly humiliated and cast down, if we look up to God in prayer, we will see him nodding, prodding and encouraging us to stand up again. In his Son he knows what it means to face humiliation. On the cross he bore the total, raw weight of our most profound failures, sins, vexations and humiliations — because we could not bear it ourselves.
‘Christ crucified, the object of faith’
God is neither embarrassed nor self-conscious about associating with us, our foolishness and failures notwithstanding. Love is not wrenched from him begrudgingly, only to be tested by us to its limits. It is an extraordinary truth that God loves us so much that he did not hesitate to take on our human nature. Nothing is stolen from him — he gives himself freely and deliberately. That’s how God is. “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.” (John 10:17-18)
In a letter addressed to the people of Madaura, St. Augustine wrote:
“Therefore the Christ who is preached throughout the whole world is not Christ adorned with an earthly crown, nor Christ rich in earthly treasures, nor Christ illustrious for earthly prosperity, but Christ crucified. This was ridiculed, at first, by whole nations of proud men, and is still ridiculed by a remnant among the nations; but it was the object of faith at first to a few and now to whole nations, because when Christ crucified was preached at that time, notwithstanding the ridicule of the nations, to the few who believed, the lame received power to walk, the dumb to speak, the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the dead were restored to life. Thus, at length, the pride of this world was convinced that, even among the things of this world, there is nothing more powerful than the humility of God.”
When life demonstrates to me — when I demonstrate to myself — how limited and foolish I can be and how easily embarrassed or humiliated, it is God’s humility that reminds me again of his unsurpassed love. And it is his merciful love that refines me, like gold and silver are refined, burning my self-consciousness and pretense like so much dross.
Northwest Catholic - June 2016
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