Fr Robert McNamara
While I was a seminarian helping at the famous Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the Redemptorist Church in Limerick, Fr. Gerry Daly passed away. Fr. Gerry was a quiet, unassuming man who had spent years in the Philippines. The only time he was not quiet was when he was leading the singing at the annual Novena. Then, the church would be ringing with his beautiful tenor voice as he joyfully encouraged the people to “pray twice,” to use St. Augustine’s term for hymn-singing. He used to say to us: “always send the people home feeling good, you don’t know what could be going on in their lives.” Like the runner in the beautiful movie, Chariots of Fire, who said: “when I run, I run for Him,” when Fr. Gerry sang, it was for the glory of the Lord, and the healing and uplifting of His people. Fr. Gerry was always very shy and dismissive of any accolades about his glorious voice. When he died, some of us had the task of clearing out his room. His belongings were simple indeed; a Bible, his breviaries, a few books, and two jumpers. I have never forgotten that last, silent sermon of his on the rare values of simplicity and humility.
God’s Word this weekend advises us in the first reading to “behave humbly”, that despite His immense power, God accepts the homage of the humble. Humility is a term which comes from the Latin root humus, which literally refers to the earth, to be close to the earth, to be grounded, rooted. We could understand it as having a realistic and balanced sense of my own worth; the happy medium between an unhealthy self-degradation and an arrogantly overblown ego. Ultimately, as a humble Christian, my sense of self-worth should be “rooted and founded in love” (Ephesians 3:17), the Love that has created me in God’s image and likeness. So often, we feel we have to validate ourselves, prove our worth, by deeds and high achievements, and this can be exhausting.
In contrast to that, God’s Word this weekend reassures us that it is this gift of being a beloved son or daughter of God, and not the deeds I do, which ultimately defines me and is my primary identity. It’s a free gift which I don’t have to and indeed cannot earn. And keeping all this in mind frees me from the temptation to see others as a threat if I view them too as beautiful creations of God with gifts which differ from, but are not better than mine.
The opposite of humility is, of course, pride. As Coleridge wrote: “the devil did grin, for his darling sin is pride which apes humility.” The 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' teaches us that indeed the original sin was pride, which turned Lucifer from an angel of light into the Prince of Darkness. There is a cautionary tale here for us all, as, without the self-awareness enabled by a good Confession, and the brave advice of close friends, pride can take a gradual, unconscious hold of us, like rust on a gate or ivy on a wall, culminating in the number one delusion around today: I am in control of my own destiny.
We would do well to adopt St. Alphonsus Liguori’s strategy of distacco, keeping an equal objective distance from both criticism and affirmation, remembering that what matters most is that I stand right in the sight of God.
Our cynical minds could be tempted to think that Jesus is advocating a kind of “cuteness” in the Gospel today, advising a dinner-guest to take the lowest place so that he will later be up-graded to the top table and thereby gain the attention of all. Rather, he’s advocating a modus operandi for a humble person who is secure in their identity, and knows it’s not derived from where he’s seated at a banquet. What is truly radical and revolutionary is Jesus’ advice to invite for your dinner-guests the poor and sick, who cannot repay you, but whose wisdom and generosity of heart are priceless.
Here we see the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of inside-out and upside-down values being inaugurated again. Jesus is constantly urging us to do what He does, push out the boundaries, enlarge our circle, leave our comfort-zone, and then we might just learn things we never would have otherwise. Here’s a prayer I learnt from an old Traveller lady: as I walked by the water, as I walked by the land, who should I see but Our Lady, with a flower in Her hand, Our Lady is the branch and Jesus is the flower, O Lord be with us, from hour to hour.