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Community and Humility

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is no other Christian virtue about which the saints have written so much or more eloquently than humility. The reason for this is not difficult to find, since, in a sense, this was the principal virtue that God came into the world to teach us.

I would like to begin by quoting at some length from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, whose proud wrangling and dissension caused him to write those immortal lines about humility. Paul’s exhortation comes in three parts. In part one, Paul urges a community of spirit among the Christians. In part two, he urges humility as the condition for community. And in part three, Paul presents the motive and the model of humility in Christ.

Saint Paul starts by telling the Philippians (and we are the Philippians) to be united among themselves.

If our life in Christ means anything to you, if love can persuade at all, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness and sympathy, then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing which would make me completely happy.

Paul then explains how this community of spirit is attainable – only if everyone practices humility.

There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.

Finally, in part three, Saint Paul tells the first Christians and is telling us how to achieve this humility.

In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

As we reread and reflect on what he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we see he was telling all the faithful for all time three things: first, there is no community without love; second, there is no love without humility; and third, there is no humility without Christ.

There is no community without love. The night before He died, the Savior made it as plain as possible what He mainly wanted His followers to be. He wanted them to be united. In his priestly prayer at the Last Supper, just before He went to His Passion, Jesus prayed to His Father for unity among His followers. He prayed, “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” That is it.

By nature, men are not united. We are naturally (note—naturally) envious and jealous; we naturally quarrel and bicker and disagree. Only grace can unite people who are naturally so different and distinct, and naturally so prone to “be myself” and “get what I want.” We naturally say, “Who does he or she think they are anyway?” That’s the language of nature. Even when people join together to form commercial enterprises, their corporation (as they modestly call it) is really bound together by corporate self-interest, and it has to be protected by the most minute statutes and bylaws to make sure that no “partner” cheats on the other “partners.” Nature does not unite.

But a Christian community is no business enterprise. There is reason to be concerned when we hear of a religious community being very well-off financially. A community is to be a union of hearts and minds deep down inside those who form that community. What unites us is what cannot be seen; it’s the invisible part of us. We are either first united as spirits in spirit or we are not really united at all. This refers to the domestic community of a family; or to religious families in Institutes of Christian Perfection; or on a larger scale to a parish, confraternity, or diocese; or to Catholics in a given nation like the United States. Yet we see vast disunity among Catholics. We hardly need to ask, “What’s wrong?” There is a failure in love.

Either there is genuine love among believers or they do not form a community, no matter what name they give it. This love Christ prescribed on those who call themselves Christians; and this kind of mutual love Christ predicted would be the surest sign by which those who are not Christians would identify His true followers. The trouble with that statement is we have heard it so often that we take it as much for granted as the air we breathe.

There are many reasons, God knows, for the practical absence of any converts to the Church in the United States. The numbers are so small they are embarrassing, compared with a former 150,000 converts each year in America. What do prospective converts not see? They do not see a united Catholic Church. The hallmark of the followers of Christ is that they love, and that love is shown by their unity. Nature divides us; only love brings us and keeps us together.

In part two, Saint Paul urges humility as the condition for community. There is no love without humility. How is this kind of loving community of spirit possible? It is not, unless acting on the grace we receive, we are humble. Talk about humility! Saint Paul, who was nothing if not a firebrand, was brutally clear. His injunctive to humility, binding all Christians for all time, comes in five commands and each is like a hammer striking at our pride: no competition; no conceit; be self-effacing; consider others better than yourself; and think of other people’s interests before your own. This is not idealism. This is the expectation of the Holy Spirit speaking through His faithful witness Saint Paul.

The Holy Spirit could not have been plainer. “There must be no competition”, which means no envy or jealousy. This is not easy; it is very, very, very hard. There is naturally a strange sadness that comes over us when we see someone else achieve or praised and not we. Do we really love? Who is deceiving whom? If we love someone, we wish that person well. So he or she gets recognition—thank God. Or if they have something which, admittedly, we don’t have—thank God. We don’t come to living out Saint Paul’s teaching, he being taught by the Holy Spirit, without a lot of deep soul-searching humility of heart. And this envy and jealousy, as we know, need show itself in no way externally. In fact, there is no virtue that wears more disguises than humility. We can actually be effusive in our congratulations. Ah, but down deep inside we know better.

The Holy Spirit tells us, “No conceit”, which means “No interior pride.” There are so many ways of practicing humility externally. But true humility is the absence of conceit, interior pride, which is our minds foolishly telling us that we are what we are not, and we live in that image of ourselves.

“Be self-effacing”, which means trying by all means in our power to avoid recognition and praise. Say it and mean it: human praise is venom, its poison! We cannot do good things without someone somewhere finally praising us. The secret is not to seek it; better, avoid it; best, dread it. I wouldn’t dare talk this language. It’s not mine, its God’s.

“Consider others better than yourself.” Dear Saint Paul, what are you telling us? We say, “But I know so many bad things about so-and-so; I live with him or her. I’ve seen her in operation. How can I stultify my mind or abdicate my reason and deny the obvious?” Nevertheless, the injunction stands. It means considering ourselves sinners. There is no one under heaven about whom we know more bad things than ourselves. And yet, there is no one under that same heaven whom we think more of than ourselves. You explain that mystery! So, we consider ourselves the sinners that we are and others before God (where alone reputation counts) either actually more pleasing to Him than we are or at least that they would be more pleasing if they had received the many graces that God has given us.

Finally, “Think of other people’s interests before your own”, which means seeking to please them before we try to please ourselves, considering their time before our time, their convenience before our convenience, their preference before our own. We might think, “But their preference doesn’t make sense!” That’s not the point—it’s their preference. In a word, we should ask ourselves, “What would be good for the other person” before we consult what we would like.

Someone has described a saint as one who takes God’s revelation literally. These five divine commands on humility are to be taken literally.

In part three, Paul presents the motive and the model of humility, in Christ. There is no humility without Christ. Needless to say, this kind of selfless love is impossible without strong motivation and a model for selfish human nature to follow. The motive and the model is Jesus Christ. He is not just the one or the other; He is both. He is the infinite God who might have pointed to Himself in practicing any one of a multitudinous variety of virtues. He did not even spoil the impact by giving us two virtues. That is why, in the single direct reference to Himself that Christ proposed for our study and imitation, on one occasion He told us, “Learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart”. Gentleness is humility in practice.

Actually, Christ and Saint Paul are telling us more than meets the natural eye or that can be seen by the natural mind. You just do not talk this language and hope to be even dimly understood apart from faith. What Christ and Paul are saying is that the humility of Jesus is actually the humiliation of God. As far as our words allow us to say it, God became man in order to humiliate Himself.

This God was almighty. He became a helpless babe who had to escape shortly after His birth so as not to suffer death at the hands of the murderous Herod. God, running away from a human tyrant! This is faith. He was all-wise and He became a speechless and apparently witless infant. He was omnipresent and He became confined to the tiny body of a child. He was all-holy and allowed Himself to be called and finally condemned as a criminal. Talk about Christ’s humility! This was the humility of God, whose purpose it was then and is now to teach us proud creatures what it means to be lowly and ignored and despised and nothing in our own eyes—and we hate to be lowly and despised. But we are told that because we love Jesus, we want to be like Him, and if He was ignored, we want to be ignored. These syllables may easily trill from our lips, but this is what the imitation of Christ really means.

Please God we shall have learned the lesson of humility, which is the hardest lesson in life to learn. No wonder Saint Paul told us that if we are to become like Christ, we are to imitate His humility. And from Saint Bernard we have this gem: “Humility is the mother of salvation.” Memorize it! Indeed, she is also the mother of sanctification and the mother of fair love, the love that alone makes living with others and their living with us a foretaste of that heavenly community when all pride will have passed away.

Transcription of the Homily
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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