Friday, August 07, 2020

Running Humble: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

James Tissot, Le pharisien et le publicain(1886-94)
Lost in Translation #11

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost teaches us much about Christian humility. The Introit urges us to cast our care upon the Lord (Ps. 54, 17; 18; 20; 23), and the Offertory Verse speaks of trusting in God rather than ourselves (Ps. 24, 1-3). Trust in God is needed in order to have humility, the subject of both the Epistle and the Gospel. Jesus tells the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18, 9-14) to correct those who “trusted in themselves as just and despised others.” The hero of the story, a humble Publican, is justified by God while the proud Pharisee is not, for “every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” In the Epistle, St Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians are an implicit call to humility. Don’t get cocky, he is basically saying: you were once all as dumb as the idols you worshiped, and if you have the ability now to recognize Jesus as Lord, it is only by virtue of the Holy Spirit. Further, if you have any special talents or position within the Church, those too are a gift from God and have nothing to do with your innate merit. (1 Cor. 12, 2-11)
All of which makes the Collect somewhat puzzling, thanks especially to one word:
Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo máxime et miserando manifestas: multíplica super nos misericordiam tuam; ut ad tua promissa curréntes, caelestium bonórum facias esse consortes. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who dost manifest Thine omnipotence chiefly by sparing and showing mercy: increase Thy mercy upon us, that Thou mayst make us, who are running towards Thy promises, partakers of Thy heavenly goods. Through our Lord.
The puzzle is not the appeal to mercy or its connection to humility, which the Publican demonstrates clearly when he strikes his breast and says “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I remember hearing that Church officials a century ago, perhaps affected by a Jansenist spirit, were startled by St. Faustina’s claim that God’s greatest attribute was His mercy. Apparently these officials didn’t pay much attention to what they were praying every year on this Sunday.

No, the puzzle is the use of currentes, which is from the verb to run or hurry up. The image in the Gospel is of a humble man practically hiding in the shadows and not even daring to raise his eyes. The Publican is not exactly a picture of alacrity. But the Collect gives us an image of God's faithful racing, hustling to His promises, eager to partake of His heavenly treasures. Are these two images incompatible?

Rubbing these two sticks together, it seems to me, triggers an important spark of insight into the nature of humility. Christian humility is not masochism or self-defeat. On the contrary, as St Thomas Aquinas so marvelously explains, whereas pride is the disordered and excessive pursuit of excellence and despair the disordered and defective pursuit of excellence, humility is the well-ordered and smoothly running pursuit of excellence, including even one’s own excellence (Summa Theologiae II-II.160.2, II-II.161.6). Let that sink in for a moment. Humility is the habit for the pursuit of excellence. It is not the state of thinking and acting like a doormat but, “so to speak, a certain disposition to man’s free access to spiritual and divine goods.” ( 4). And when that access is free, we run to it freely, unencumbered by vice or a delusional self-regard. Notice the similarity between Aquinas’ wording (“spiritual and divine goods”) and the Collect’s (“heavenly goods”). Was the Angelic Doctor inspired by this prayer when he wrote his treatment of humility?

The point is that humility is a paradox. The virtue of lowliness gains the heights; the virtue of trusting in God and not in oneself imparts a confidence that all the pep talks in the world about high self-esteem cannot muster; and the virtue of looking down contritely and staying put looks up gleefully and runs to the prize. So run as to obtain it.

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