A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

The Narrow Way

I remember years ago, as a child, reading with awe the stories of great missionaries and martyrs.  And so when in China I met “real live people” who were daily risking their lives to bring the Gospel, I was somewhat starstruck.  I attended secret Masses with priests and nuns who had served in the Underground Church for decades, who had friends who had been arrested, beaten, or even killed for their faith.  I met women who taught small children the faith, despite the law that made it a crime to speak of God to anyone under eighteen.  I met men and women who had started orphanages and infant hospices to care for the abandoned and discarded little ones, and others who assisted women seeking to hide their “illegal” pregnancies from forced abortion.  Each of these daily put their livelihood and even their lives on the line, over a span of decades, and many had suffered terrible persecution but still persisted.

When I was invited to join some of them in a secret mission trip to another part of China, to join in speaking “illegally” about the faith, I was thrilled.  To be fair, the risk to me was insignificant—if caught I would only be deported, not killed.  But there was something in me that loved the idea of being a part of something that felt so missionary, to join these heroes even in a partial way.

But then, a few days before we were to leave, something felt wrong.  At first I thought the heat was finally getting to me.  We had taken a taxi to the Great Wall, and our driver like many elderly Chinese had a deep superstition regarding moving air.  He insisted on keeping the windows closed and the AC off, until we arrived and gratefully tumbled out into the much cooler 99 degree air.  But the weak, dizzy feeling continued well into the evening, even after we returned from the wall.

The next morning, my stomach began to lurch and make sounds that might have had me burned at the stake in earlier centuries.  It then violently designated “return to sender” pretty much everything I had ever eaten or ever considered eating.  Charity and basic decency ask me to censor the graphic details, but suffice it to say, I had never been so sick in my life.

In the United States, when one gets a stomach bug or food poisoning it usually end after 24 hours or so.  This did not.  After three full days my body was still violently and involuntarily turning itself inside out, and I alternated between thinking I was going to die and praying that I would.

I did not suffer nobly.  I did not smile serenely offering up my pain for the poor souls.  I was not peaceful, accepting whatever God would send me for His greater glory. I don’t even think I prayed, other than to beg God to let me die, quickly.  I had not known, until that moment, that it was possible to experience such pain and not die or fall unconscious.  I only wanted it to end.

It was ten days before I was back on my feet again, thanks to a combination of watermelon, Cipro and many prayers.  I missed the mission trip, and realized ruefully that that far from being a hero, I had more in common with the nameless companions who died of dysentery before ever reaching the missions.

I was tempted to be disappointed, at first, at not being permitted to do something “great” like the others.  And I was frustrated at how poorly I had suffered even my minor little cross, when I knew others who carried much bigger ones more gracefully.  But God’s plan for each of us is profoundly personal, and always perfect.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”  We’ve all heard some variation on this, and know, (at least on some level) the harm in Park Avenue pretense, or Wall Street ambition, or any other human measuring sticks.  Yet sometimes this slips into our spirituality and our ideas of holiness.

It is a central strategy of the Opposition Voice to turn our eyes away from Christ, to look instead to the gifts, or faults, of others.  When we see those of seemingly greater gifts or callings we are tempted to doubt our own, to be ungrateful, or to let them go unused.  When we see the faults of others, we are tempted to excuse our own, saying “at least I am not as bad as him/her.”  My father used to warn me not to make others the measure of my soul: “You will always be able to find someone holier than you, and someone more sinful.  The fact that you are better than Hitler does not make you a good person.  You need to do the best you can with what you have been given.” Christ invites us to look to Him, to what He is calling us to individually.

The way is narrow because it is personal, a specific way for each person.  As Pope Benedict said, there are “as many ways as there are people.”  Not that each person invents his or her own way—nothing could be more disastrous!  Rather each person is uniquely called to follow Christ in a particular way, with particular gifts.  The one reason to do anything, great or small, is because He asks us to.

Salt and Light

Jesus said to his disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. –Matt 5:1

*     *     *

My late father was an introvert.  At his funeral the joke was that he would have preferred a smaller event, so that he wouldn’t have to talk to so many people.  He was intelligent and well-educated, having studied eight languages while working on a PhD in English—but he chose all dead ones, thus avoiding the risk of having to converse in them.  These ranged from familiar ones like Latin and Hebrew and Ancient Greek, to Hittite and Sanskrit and Tocharian (which in my uneducated mind was spelled Tolkarian, and which I assumed was something that hobbits spoke—until I had to google it).  He tended to stay on the periphery of conversations, only occasionally injecting bits of wisdom, humor or an odd pun.

So it was something of a shock when the phone rang, one day years ago, and it was for him.  It was a collect call from a Massachusetts prison, from a young man named Scott, looking for my father.  Even more of a shock was that my father stayed on the phone with him for close to an hour, using more than a few month’s quota of words on someone we didn’t even know he knew.  This was repeated many times, as Scott had found in my quiet father something of a mentor.

Indeed, my father attracted quite a fan club among surprising populations.  This is probably not the best place to mention “Boomer”, another prison inmate, who saw in my father’s Sicilian features an underlying presence, and took him for a Godfather figure.  He refused to believe that my father was who claimed to be (ironically at the time, a sales rep for a large stuffed animal company) and thought he must in fact be a Boss.  “Let me work for you!” Boomer insisted.  “I could be your hit man!” (true story)

At his funeral many commented how my father spoke rarely, but when he did, people listened.  I know in my own life, I have held on to these bits of wisdom, which while infrequent had more impact than many longer conversations or even entire courses in theology.  And I have come to recognize that this unassuming wisdom was the fruit of a life of prayer.

“One of the greatest evils in the Church today,” my father told me when I was seventeen and on the way to college in Steubenville, “is the number of people in positions of authority who have long since ceased to be holy themselves.”  I heard these words long before the Church was rocked by public scandal and had the veneer of public piety removed from some of the most horrifying of private sins.  But my father’s warning was not directed at others, but as a caution to me.  “It is very easy when you are learning about God, doing things for God, talking about God, to forget to talk to God.”  For my father this was the worst possible fate.

“You cannot give what you don’t have.”  I don’t think that expression was original to Dad, but it points to the necessity of prayer, and is the heart of today’s Gospel.  “If salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” Jesus asks, after telling his disciples to be salt and light for the world.   Similarly, one cannot give light by studying it, talking about it—only by being filled with it.  And the place we are filled is prayer.

There was one cause which propelled my Dad from the comfort and confines of a hidden life, and that was the prolife movement.  In his retirement he went weekly to an abortion clinic, more than sixty miles from our home, to stand alone peacefully offering literature about the help and alternatives available to women as they entered the clinic.  But then later in the morning he would stand across the street with a sign, across from the parking lot where they would see him as they left, with a sign that said: “Jesus forgives and heals.”

Many people thought it was “too soon.”  That the women were not ready for repentance and thus not ready for Christ’s mercy.  But my father believed that being prolife was more than just saving babies, that it was about saving souls.  And he knew from the experience of many who shared their personal stories of abortion with him, that memories of the day would come back years later.  He hoped that with them would come the memory of that message of mercy.*

I think of this too when I think of salt and light, and how the one thing that they cannot be is hidden. Like my Dad, I prefer quiet and solitude, and more than he, invisibility when it comes to controversy.  I don’t like to be the one to speak out, to stand out.  I prefer to be one of the crowd.  But we all know what the “crowd” does to Jesus.

It is in prayer that I draw both the strength and motivation to step out of myself. Just as improbable as my father’s prison ministry is my own public speaking.  I have learned how true it is that “the one who does not speak to God has nothing to say to the world.”  That it is only by practicing faithfulness to daily prayer that I have anything at all to say, and more importantly, the courage to step out of myself and my fears to say it.

Let us ask God today that we may be truly salt and light for the world, witnessing by what we are and have received.

Like my father I have only love for those who have had abortions.  I know the sometimes unbearable pressures of circumstances, boyfriends, family and friends that weigh into such decisions.  I also know that for many, often years later, there is great anguish and pain following that decision.  If you know of someone who is seeking healing from an abortion, there are many organizations who can help including the Sisters of Life linked here.