Looking Up and Looking Down

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deacon D. McManaman

The readings today are all about humility. There is so much to say about humility and its importance. At the risk of oversimplifying reality, I would dare to say that all the world’s problems come down to a lack of humility, or pride. A proud man is going to have lots of problems and difficulties in his life, and the source of those difficulties and sufferings is none other than himself, his own prideful character. The proud are their own worst enemy. C. S. Lewis said: “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” 

Proud people rarely look up to others, except perhaps to those who think as they do. And the Scriptures say very clearly that the Lord looks upon the proud from a distance. The great Hasidic rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov said that “Pride is more serious than all sin. For to all sinning applies God’s word about Himself: “Who dwells in the midst of their uncleanness.” But of the proud man God says, as our sages teach, “I and he cannot dwell together in the world.” 

What is interesting about the word humility is that it comes from the Latin word humus, which means dirt or soil. But the word “human” also comes from the same root word. To be human is to be from the ground. This of course recalls the second story of creation where we read that God formed man from the mud of the earth, from the ground, from the soil. And of course, we return to the soil eventually. 

What this suggests is that the more humble we become, the more human we become. But the more proud we become, the more ridiculous we become, for we are trying to become more than human, and of course we end up being less than human, because we have created nothing but a facade. 

There’s an old expression: a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. That’s why sophomores are dangerous. They have one year of university under their belt, they have a bit of knowledge, but they don’t have enough learning to have realized how little they know and how much more there is to know. And so they tend to speak with great confidence, and they pronounce on things that they know almost nothing about. The only thing to do is wait patiently–hopefully, after a few more years, they will realize that reality is much more complex than originally thought and they will begin to speak with much less confidence and self-assurance. Some people get to that point, but many people do not, unfortunately. 

One of the great physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, said that science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance. The more we discover, the more we realize how much more there is to know about the universe. Every new scientific discovery is accompanied by a myriad of new questions that we cannot answer. As we answer them in time, as a result of new discoveries, even more questions arise. Our ignorance expands exponentially with every new discovery. And that’s why very experienced scientists have much greater humility than their students; they have more experience in being wrong.

The glory of man is not intelligence. Rather, intelligence is the glory of the angels. Your guardian angel is inconceivably more brilliant than the most brilliant human being. Angels are not hampered by matter, sense perception, time and geography. An angel is an immaterial entity, and so they are far superior intellectually than we are. Even the most brilliant human being is terribly slow and rather dumb compared to an ordinary angel. The glory of the angels is intelligence. Man’s glory, on the other hand, is humility. We can never outdo an angel in terms of knowledge or intellectual brilliance, but we can certainly outdo them in humility, if we are willing. We can recognize our littleness and embrace it. Mary is higher than the angels, for she is Queen of Angels, but she was not intellectually superior to them; rather, she had greater humility. In her magnificat, she said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, … for he has looked upon the nothingness of his handmaiden.” She saw her nothingness only because she had a profound knowledge of God. When you are close to something large, you see your own littleness in relation to it. Mary was closest to God, and so she had a deeper sense of her nothingness. And so she was pre-eminently human.

However, there is another word that is also derived from humus, and that word is “humour”. The ability to laugh. A person who is truly humble is able to laugh at themselves. A humble person does not take himself too seriously. They take themselves lightly. And so the more humble a person is, the greater will be their sense of humour and they will be able to laugh more. This is the problem with religious movies. They tend to depict saints as overly serious, never laughing. Jesus movies are the worst. He sometimes speaks with a slight British accent, and he rarely smiles or laughs. I believe this depiction is rooted in a lack of understanding of what holiness is and how holiness is related to humility, and how humility is related to humour. 

Taking yourself lightly, being able to laugh at yourself, in other words, humour, is the key to conflict resolution. Marriages fall apart as a result of unresolved conflict, and behind that collapse is always a couple who cannot laugh at themselves, who take themselves too seriously, who are oversensitive and proud. If a person has a difficult time admitting they are wrong, there’s little chance they can be married for very long.  

And this is the case with all human relationships. Just as a proud person is his own worst enemy, creating the conditions for endless problems and difficulties, the more you grow in humility, the more peaceful your life becomes. The problem is that pride blinds the mind, and so proud people do not notice their lack of humility. They’re not embarrassed about their lack of humility. This is especially the case if they are religious, because it is easy to hide our vices behind a cloak of religious orthodoxy. And so the only hope is to pray that God will enlighten our minds. To pray for humility. At the back of the church we printed out a powerful prayer, which is the Litany of Humility. Feel free to take one. This is how we overcome that blindness, namely, by assuming we don’t see accurately, and so we ask God to take over and enlighten us gradually, so as to become the persons He intends us to be.

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved…

From the desire of being extolled …

From the desire of being honored …

From the desire of being praised …

From the desire of being preferred to others…

From the desire of being consulted …

From the desire of being approved …

From the fear of being humiliated …

From the fear of being despised…

From the fear of suffering rebukes …

From the fear of being calumniated …

From the fear of being forgotten …

From the fear of being ridiculed …

From the fear of being wronged …

From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I …

That, in the opinion of the world,

others may increase and I may decrease …

That others may be chosen and I set aside …

That others may be praised and I unnoticed …

That others may be preferred to me in everything…

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

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