01 September 2013

Praiseworthy self-abasement

22nd Sunday OT (C) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

We know already that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and that those who humble themselves will be exalted. We know already that we are charged with ministering to the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. And we know that our greatest reward for service is not public attention or gratitude but a place among the righteous when Christ comes again. What we might not know, or perhaps we've just forgotten, is that our humility—such as it is—is first a gift from God, a freely given seed that we must nurture. This is why Jesus is so intent upon revealing to us the necessity of what Aquinas calls “praiseworthy self-abasement.” Not humiliation as we commonly understand the term. Not groveling self-disrespect, or pathetic self-shaming. Note that Aquinas qualifies “self-abasement” with “praiseworthy.” That is, we place ourselves—willingly, eagerly—at the service of others b/c there is nothing more honorable, nothing more deserving of praise for us to do than to set aside our pride, our sense of place and importance, and provide for another what they truly need. Our ability and willingness to serve is a gift b/c service brings us closer to the one who serves us with his body and blood. 

Now, I wouldn't be a bona-fide Old English Teacher if I didn't bring up at this point that famous passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost: Satan's Non-serviam speech. God has banished his brightest angel to Hell for rebelling against Heaven. Satan, the Arch-fiend, surveying his fiery kingdom and his fallen kin, boasts to his minion, Beelzebub: “Here at least/We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built/Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:/Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n” (Book 1). Non serviam. I will not serve. And b/c Satan once and always chose not to serve, he is eternally chained by his bitter pride, “rolling in the fiery gulf,” Milton writes, “Confounded though immortal.” Other than a chance to quote Milton in a homily, why reference this passage about Satan's defiance? As a creature of God, Lucifer, receives from God not only his very being but also every gift that he needs to thrive as a servant of the Almighty. Yet, out of jealously and pride, he rebels, placing himself above the duties and obligations of a creature and settles himself into an immortal existence of bitter and ultimately useless rage against his Father. That is pride's pay-out: bitter, useless rage. 

I doubt very seriously that anyone here this evening has rebelled against God with the intensity or permanence of Lucifer. However, like this fallen angel, any one of us could decide that fidelity, obedience, sacrifice, humility, any one of the cardinal virtues is simply too much to bear up under and take to the hills in rebellion. Any one of us could reach a breaking point and declare, “Non serviam.” I will not serve. If you can't imagine the circumstances under which you might do such a thing, allow me to imagine it for you. I decide that I'm smarter than 2,000 years of Church teaching and start rejecting articles of faith. I decide that serving the poor is simply a way of keeping the poor poor. Visiting the sick isn't my job. My academic credentials or prestigious job or centuries-old family name exempts me from serving anyone. My need for security in excessive abundance doesn't allow for charity. My neighbors are the wrong color or the wrong political party or the wrong religion. And so on. None of these—by itself—is a Satanic rebellion. But one prideful act quickly needs another to secure its legitimacy. And like one blackbird in a magnolia tree, that one heralds the flock to come. 

When Jesus urges his disciples and the Pharisees to cede their pride in favor of service, he's not telling them to fake being modest. He's telling them to consider the eternal consequences of their self-importance. By taking for themselves the places of honor at the banquet table, they are usurping the host's right to choose who will sit at his right-hand. Just so, when we place ourselves above the least of God's children; when we think and act as masters rather than servants, we are attempting to wrestle from God's hands a choice that belongs to Him alone. And what's worse: we do so using our imperfect human judgment, our imperfect human knowledge. In fact, if we're going to be honest in our rebellion against God, we must conclude that God's judgment and knowledge must be flawed. How else could He think that lepers and poor people and cripples and other undesirables deserve my service? Do you see how the beautiful archangel, Lucifer, became the Arch-fiend, Satan? Just one small step was needed: why should I serve a master when I can be the Master and serve no one? I shouldn't have to serve; therefore, I will not serve. After all, it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Or: it's better to preserve my pride now than risk losing any of my options later on. 

I noted earlier that our desire to serve is a gift. It's a seed planted in our hearts and minds by God that will grow and bear great fruit. . .if we diligently tend to it. Jesus tells us outright how to tend to this seed: feed it with humility and contrition. Always see yourself as a lovable creature of God. Not just loveable, no, but loved. A creature loved into being, loved into being re-born, and loved into a seat at the heavenly banquet. Always see those around you as loved creatures. With all of their annoying habits, strange smells, odd personalities, extreme political views, and weird religious beliefs. Loving them as loved creatures doesn't mean that we have to approve of or celebrate their choices. Loving them simply means that we see them first and last as brothers and sisters of one Father, our Father. And that we are willing to live with them in sight of eternity, with an eye on the Biggest Possible Picture in Christ. Loving them—all of them, all of us—means trying to do perfectly what the Father created us to do: love Him by loving those whom He created to be loved. 

Lucifer became Satan in a flash of envy and pride. He thought he deserved better; he thought he was entitled to more and better than the Father had given him. Rather than submit to his angelic nature and obediently serve, he chose to rebel. He chose to exclude himself from the company of God and His saints. Satan believes that he is free in his rebellion. He believes that b/c he disobeys God he acts freely. He believes a lie. We are never more free than when we act according to God's will for us; when we serve the least with our most and do so for no other reason than that we desire to give God glory. That's freedom. That's honor. When we come to know and accept the truth that we are creatures loved by a loving God, that's humility. And when we see and accept all others as creatures loved by a loving God and serve them as such, that's love. Not just any love. Love that brings us to the banquet table. Love that brings us honor and a seat at the right-hand of the Father. 
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  1. I wasn't really taken by the beginning - until about midway through the fourth sentence, "...our humility...is first a gift...." After that, things got rolling. I appreciated your use of the quote from Milton. The third and fourth paragraphs were, I thought, well done - well placed, and gave good practical explanations/descriptions of what you were talkin about.

    And that fifth paragraph brought tears to my eyes. Beautiful. And the final paragraph was an excellent ending - Thanks!

    1. For about thirty minutes. . .towards writing the conclusion. . .I thought I was going to die. Getting this one done was W.O.R.K.! As usual, I was standing in the way with what I wanted to say. As the clock ticked down to Go Time. . .well, the H.S. finally said, "Enough! I'll finish it."