Humility

The book of Sirach tells us to be humble with the counsel: “What is too sublime for you, seek not.” However, just as we have this lesson under our belts, the author of Hebrews, rather mysteriously, holds up for our contemplation “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, … myriads of angels in festal gathering, … the assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven, … God the judge of all, … the spirits of just men made perfect, [and] Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”

I don’t know about you, but this seems pretty sublime to me. What, after all, could be loftier than the vast panoply of heaven and earth flung at us for our contemplation by the author of Hebrews? And yet, Holy Church apparently does not think these things “too sublime” for she does indeed fling them at us for our contemplation. Whatever Sirach is getting at, it can’t be “Stop thinking about awesome spiritual realities.” So what is the Church getting at in these readings?

The Gospel gives us the clue: Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. That is, we can seek what is above, but we must do it from the last place. The best seats in the sublime heavenly wedding is in the back. The sublime is appreciated more, not by getting larger, but by getting smaller. The only thing “too sublime” is to seek our own sublimity. To appreciate the glory of all else is open for us.

In our self-esteem besotted culture, this seems backwards–till we look at our own lives. Our most powerful experiences of the sublime come, not as navel-gazing adults, but as children whose gaze is focused entirely and self-forgetfully outward. It is the humble who most appreciate the awesome. It is the self-absorbed who lose the power to appreciate anything, even themselves. That is why Chesterton said that giants who tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Better still, humility loves best those wonders which are not our creations at all but exist, against all hope, in the real world. That is why the childlike rejoice to discover that mountains are enormous, or that birds are beautiful, or that snow is cold, or that God is really real.

Curiously, there is often something in the human psyche that often learns to appreciate this through suffering. Paul could not see before he was blinded. The lame man Christ healed knew better than we the sheer bliss of just swinging one foot in front of t’other. And so Jesus sends us out to the humble-to the beggars, cripple, lame and blind-because that is what we all are and they are the icons of our race. They can tell us better than anyone what it is to eat, to walk, to see, to appreciate, to rejoice in wonder.

So God gives us the counsel to “go to the lowest place”, not because he likes to watch us crawl, but because he likes to see us free and full of wonder. Neurotic, self-absorbed people forever fretting about attaining the highest cubicle in the Temple of Fame are neither humble nor happy. Free, happy children who never think of themselves because they are lost in wonder are free and happy indeed. They are not paid in the coin of this world, but with the treasures of heaven.

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