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Humility

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Homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

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Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator, was an outstanding example of humility.  Shortly after he took over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy white woman. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her.

Since he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady.

The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. “It’s perfectly all right, Madam,” he replied. “Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.” She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.

Humility is the most basic of all of the Christian virtues.  In order to believe in God, we need to be humble.  Humility allows us to believe in someone greater than ourselves.  In order to love, we need to be humble.  Humility allows us to forget ourselves and love our neighbor.

What is humility?  If we were to research a proper definition, we would find that there are a number of definitions of this fundamental virtue.  Of all of the definitions that I have come across, I find the definition that Saint Teresa of Avila gives us to be the most helpful.  She said that humility is living in the truth (andar en la verdad). When you consider this definition carefully, it makes a lot of sense.

Humility allows us to live in the truth in our relationship with God, ourselves and our neighbor.

First, we need to remember that God is God and we are not.  We live out our relationship with God by being lovingly obedient to his loving and provident plan over our lives.

Secondly, we live in the truth with ourselves by being just who we are and not trying to be something that we are not.

Thirdly, we live in truth with our neighbor through mutual respect, kindness and acceptance.

In this Sunday’s gospel narrative, Jesus speaks to us about the virtue of humility: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones” (Matthew 11: 25).

Humble people are delightful to work with and easy to live with.  Humble people make great friends and are always fun to be with.

Humility is not an easy virtue to acquire.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”

Humility is a gift.  We need to ask God to make us humble.  But, asking for humility is not enough; we need to do acts of humility.  We have many opportunities every day to do many acts of humility.  The more we exercise the virtue of humility, the humbler we will become.

Abraham Lincoln once got caught up in a situation where he wanted to please a politician, so he issued a command to transfer certain regiments during the Civil War. When the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, received the order, he refused to carry it out. He said that the President was a fool. Lincoln was told what Stanton had said, and he replied, “If Stanton said I’m a fool, then I must be, for he is nearly always right. I’ll see for myself.” As the two men talked, the President quickly realized that his decision was a serious mistake, and without hesitation he withdrew it.

The opposite of the virtue of humility is pride.  Pride is a very ugly sin that causes terrible disharmony, division and sadness.  Humble people are people filled with joy and peace.  Humble people know how to build community and be team players.  Humble people are wonderful to be with because they are forgetful of themselves.  Humble people are kind and compassionate to all those around them.

The proud cultivate an inflated notion of their own consequence. They attribute to themselves those personal traits, abilities or attributes that they may not really possess.

Those who are ruled by pride yearn to be accounted superior to all others, to dominate them, to impose their own ideas upon them.  Proud people constantly strive to be singled out, seeking honors and privileges that will set them apart from more commonplace people.

The proud desire the esteem of other people. They thirst voraciously for adulation and they thrive on it.  They boast of their own qualities and achievements; ostentatious and pompous in their relationships with others, the proud are prone to hypocrisy, assuming the appearance of virtue in order to cover their vices.

The only remedy for pride is the virtue of humility.

In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn’t a technology problem like radar malfunction–or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship’s presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.

George Washington Carver, the scientist who developed hundreds of useful products from the peanut once told this story about himself. “When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is reserved for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well, George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.”

As a practical application of this Sunday’s teaching on the virtue of humility, Pope Francis has mentioned that there are two ways to be humble: how we pray and how we go to Confession are the bottom line ways in which we live out the virtue of humility.

Pope Francis is so correct in pointing out the connection between prayer and the Sacrament of Confession.

In both moments, our prayer time with God and our use of the Sacrament of Confession are our best and most important personal expressions of humility.  In both instances we recognize our need for God.

The arrogant do not pray and the arrogant do not go to Confession.

Only the humble can experience the peace and the joy the Jesus gives to us.  Only the humble can get to heaven.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take up my yoke and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

This past Tuesday,  we celebrated Independence Day.  Independence as a nation does not mean our independence from God.  As we celebrate our independence and as we cherish our freedoms, we must remember that both our independence and our freedom rely upon our dependence upon God.

Freedom without God; freedom without the ability to govern ourselves only leads to chaos and eventually, to the cruelest forms of tyranny.

James Madison wrote: “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”