Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—9 August AD 2009
“There are a variety of gifts, but the same spirit….”[1]

[Ordinary of the Mass]
[English Text]
[Latin Text]

    The word “virtue” comes from the Latin, and is usually translated as “power” or “strength.”  We can think of the virtues as those powers and strengths that help us to deal with the vicissitudes of life.  Temperance, prudence, and fortitude are examples of natural virtues—virtues that we develop over the years of our lives.  We are all familiar with another three: faith, hope, and charity.  These three are both natural and supernatural—we can speak of merely human faith, merely human hope, and merely human charity—but we also know that God infuses us with supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, so that we may believe what He has revealed, work toward our salvation, and love Him as we love ourselves.  These three supernatural virtues are infused in the soul at Baptism, and are strengthened when we receive the Sacraments or do other things pleasing to God.

    Pretty clearly, these supernatural virtues are the most important in our spiritual lives.  We are told that, “those who do not believe will be condemned.[2]”  We are told that, “Jesus Christ is our hope.”[3]  We are told that, “if I have not charity, I am nothing.”[4]

    It is a little bit more difficult to assign a priority to the natural virtues.  None of the natural virtues is absolutely needed for salvation—although it does seem that if a person were completely lacking in any of them it would have a disastrous effect on his spiritual life.  But if one had to pick a single natural virtue that is essential to a healthy spiritual life, it probably ought to be the virtue alluded to in this morning’s Gospel, the virtue of humility.

    Look at the boasting of the Pharisee: “I do this, I do that.” “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men….”[5]  He might as well be telling God that God is lucky indeed to have such a wonderful person as His follower!  The Lord tells us that this man “who exalts himself shall be humbled.”

    But, on the other hand, our Lord approves of the Publican (the tax collector), who recognizes his sinful nature, and only asks for God’s mercy.  “This man,” we are told, “went back to his home justified,”  “this man who humbled himself shall be exalted.”

    The operative difference here is that the humble person is (1) honest with himself in reflecting on himself, (2) knows that any goodness or talent he may possess comes ultimately from God, and (3) does not even try to compare himself favorably with anyone else.

    Sometimes we contrast “humility” with “pride,” but doing so is not exactly correct.  Certainly, it is not a bad thing to take pride in one’s workmanship, producing a product that is useful, and safe, and durable.  Certainly, it is not a bad thing to take pride in one’s appearance, not going around looking as though one had just rolled out of bed.  It is reasonable to have pride in one’s family, school, or nation—or to be proud of practicing the Catholic Faith.

    Sinful pride comes about when we lack one or more of those three factors that we associated with humility.  If (1) we are not honest in evaluating our self;  if (2) we fail to give God credit where credit is due;  if (3) we claim to be somehow “better” than the next person.  Any of those three point to sinful pride.

    And sinful pride usually points to sins, other than and apart from itself.  If I fail to give God credit for the good things, I will have little or no motive for worshipping Him, keeping His name and His day holy.  If I see myself as “better” than the next fellow, I will have little or no motive for respecting his rights:  If I am better than he is, why should I not take his property?  why should I not push him down?  why should I not take his wife?  or even his life?  Why should I honor my father and mother, who never really amounted to anything as much as I?

    Humility is not “humiliation.”  The great Trappist Abbot, Dom Eugene Boylen, scorned those who thought you could make a man humble and holy by humiliating him.  “Humiliation just breaks a man’s spirit,” he said.[6]  He said that the best and most humble monks that he knew were men who came into the monastery as novices after having reasonable success in the outside world; those who know that they could fend for themselves.  Such a man did not have to prove anything—he could be honest with himself;  he didn’t have to show off relative to the others;  he could readily admit to God’s benevolence in what he was.  If he encountered a humiliating experience, he could just smile to himself and plan to do better next time

    On the other hand, the novice monk who entered the monastery with no experience of making his own way generally felt that he had something to prove.  He was afraid to be honest with himself;  he tended to be jealous and critical of those around him;  and didn’t believe that God had given him much of a break in life.  If he encountered humiliation he was likely to place blame on everyone but himself.

    In today’s epistle, Saint Paul wrote about the “variety of gifts that come from the same Holy Spirit of God.”  The humble person recognizes the source of his talents, but does not hesitate to use them when they are valuable to his society (be that a family, a community, a monastery, or whatever).  The person who has, for example, the talent to sing, or the talent to write, or the talent to organize people for a good purpose would be falsely humble if he refused to exercise that God given talent.  He would be dishonest with himself, would be refusing to honor God as the source of his gift, and be depriving the people around him of this particular good.

    To repeat: the humble person is (1) honest in reflecting on himself, (2) knows that any goodness or talent he possesses comes ultimately from God, and (3) does not even try to compare himself favorably with anyone else.

    Why is this important?  “Because those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, but those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”  Probably true in this life as well, but definitely true in the life to come!


[1]  Epistle:  1 Corinthians xii: 2-11.

[2]   Mark xvi: 6.

[3]   Timothy I:1.

[4]   1 Corinthians xiii: 2.

[5]   Gospel:  Luke xviii: 9-14.

[6]   I am citing Dom Boylen from memory of a recording of a retreat he gave in 1947 to the monks at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit monastery in Conyers, Georgia.  The words may be mine, but the idea was his.




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