I am not in general prey to superstition, with one glaring exception: the Litany of Humility. I learned to fear this prayer in college, when I first took it up as part of the popular piety of the time. I quickly found that my prayers were answered rapidly and concretely—I was offered occasions of humiliation, often public, with nearly every recitation. On one occasion, I was sitting with an upperclassman to whom I was rather attracted and wanted very much to impress. Somehow I managed to rock and tip my chair backwards, landing flat on my backside with my legs in the air like something out of a slapstick comedy. I joined the whole room in laughter, but then decided to table the prayers for humility indefinitely. Like St. Augustine, I hoped that someday God might grant me the grace. But I added a very firm “not yet.”
It was years later that I was telling some of these stories to a fellow teacher, joking that if students needed quick assurance that God is real and responds to prayer, the Litany of Humility was perhaps a quicker bet than the Skeptic’s Prayer. It was only a few hours later that I was pulled over and given my first (and only) speeding ticket. While I sat in the driver’s seat with the police lights flashing behind me, blushing down to my goody-two-shoes, another car pulled over to join us. It was my mother and with her all of my siblings. Anxious to find out what the matter was, she drew over to ask what I was doing there. I don’t remember which was more mortifying—to have my family witness the speeding ticket, or to have the cops see my mother coming over to help. I changed the “not yet” to “not ever” and stopped even joking about the Litany of Humility.
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Demons are not humble. They brag. The demon in today’s Gospel recognizes Jesus and wants to show off his knowledge: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” he cries out in a loud voice before being cast out.
Saint Francis of Assisi uses the example of such demons to warn us: having knowledge and powers is not an occasion for glory. In Admonition #5, he offers a candid (to put it mildly) warning that should be daily reading for anyone in Church ministry:
Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit. And all the creatures that are under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you together with them crucified Him and still crucify Him by taking delight in vices and sins. Wherefore then can you glory? For if you were so clever and wise that you possessed all science, and if you knew how to interpret every form of language and to investigate heavenly things minutely, you could not glory in all this, because one demon has known more of heavenly things and still knows more of earthly things than all men, although there may be some man who has received from the Lord a special knowledge of sovereign wisdom. In like manner, if you were handsomer and richer than all others, and even if you could work wonders and put the demons to flight, all these things are hurtful to you and in nowise belong to you, and in them you cannot glory; that, however, in which we may glory is in our infirmities, and in bearing daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Emphasis added).
Translation: even the demons know that Jesus is God. In fact, they know more than we do. So any knowledge, any teaching or other gifts from God, do not make us great and therefore should not be a source of pride. We can only glory in our weakness, and in bearing the Cross of Christ.
We easily recognize pride in its more “worldly” forms: when men and women seek glory in the accumulation of wealth or prestige or power. In the Church it takes more insidious forms. I wrote last week how morality can become an idol; so too can our good works, our mission, or things that we do ostensibly for God.
Our mission is a gift from God. It points to God, not to ourselves. Currently, we are watching with shock and horror the unmasking of those who have abandoned the mission to serve God—and those who have put their mission ahead of God and ahead of those they are called to love. Abominable things have been covered up to protect the image of the Body of the Christ, while underneath, Christ suffers over and over in the wounds of the victims.
It was not a coincidence that when Christ was crucified He was stripped of His garments. He who had no shame took ours upon Him, so that ours might be revealed and healed. We more than ever need humble leaders, who will follow Christ, unafraid to be shamed for the Gospel. We need those who are guilty to be honest about their sin, to accept having their crimes laid bare, to stop covering their shame but instead bring it forth to the only One who can heal. We need those who are innocent to be willing to suffer shame with the guilty, as Christ did—for the sake of sinner and victim alike. We need a Church that is not afraid of the truth, confident in the knowledge that the Truth will set us free.
We need a stripping away of false versions of holiness, the false versions of ourselves that we worship in God’s place. We need to tear away the coverings that allow evil to hide behind pious facades. And we need a repentance that is recognizes what sin is, but also knows that sin doesn’t get the last word. Today more than ever we need to recognize the truth about what we are and what we are not. We are not God.