Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—21 August A.D. 2011
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

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

    Today’s Gospel speaks to what may well be the most important Christian virtue of them all—the virtue of humility.  Many people, on hearing this parable for the first time, are confused by it.  The Pharisee seems to be the good man, and the Publican the sinner—by each one’s own admission.  But what our Lord is concerned with is not just who does good and who does not, but with the attitude which they display before God

    The Pharisee is proud and boastful.  He seems to be telling God how lucky He is to have such a fine follower.  We somehow know that he attributes his good behavior to himself, with no help from God or anyone else.  He is filled with the vice of pride.

    Let me be clear that what I am referring to as “the vice of pride” is an inordinate belief in one’s own good qualities and general goodness.  This does not extend to such things like pride in one’s workmanship—a good Catholic should not make shoddy junk!  It does not extend to reasonable pride in one’s appearance—it is reasonable to wear clean clothes and to comb one’s hair before going out in public or when spending quality time with one’s family.  Of course it might be inordinate pride to spend hours before a mirror for the purpose of looking prettier or more handsome than all of one’s friends.  But making reasonable and proper use of one’s gifts and abilities—even if they are very great—is not inordinate pride.

    The real root of pride is in thinking that one is better than he actually is—or that his talents and abilities are solely his own achievements, with no need of God or of other people.  The man who sees himself as being innately superior to the people around him is sinfully prideful—not to mention being destined for disappointment when reality sets in.

    The humble man—the hated tax collector in our parable, for that what a publican is—acknowledges his defects and asks God to forgive him for any of them that have been sinful.  The humble man has no illusions of innate superiority, and acknowledges that whatever talents he has come from God, perhaps with the assistance of other men.

    Being humble doesn’t mean being mediocre.  The great musicians all recognize their dependence on God given gifts, as well as the influence of the works of composers of previous decades and centuries.  Likewise the great scientists acknowledge their debt to previous generations.  “Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes—Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” is a phrase attributed to the philosopher Bernard of Chartres.  Isaac Newton quite humbly made use of it to assure his rival that his great discoveries in optics were made possible because of the earlier work of Descartes, and of Robert Hook (who was, himself, the rival).  Humble modern day men of science have to admit their debt to a long line of scholars, including Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Einstein, and so forth.  Many of the notables, like Pasteur and Einstein are on record of seeing the work of God through their research, particularly in the order that He imparts to nature, thereby making science possible.

   “God does not play dice with the world.”[2]

    Einstein was something of a pantheist—humble, but not a Christian.  But we have the Catholic example of Louis Pasteur.  The charming story is told of an old man riding on a train alone, praying his Rosary.  A young man enters the compartment, expresses surprise that anyone would waste his time praying, and proceeds to spend the rest of their time together explaining how modern science explains everything, and that none of his professors believe in God or religion.  The old man listens kindly, is unconvinced, but doesn’t even presume to display his superior knowledge of “modern science.”  He remains polite even though he is dealing with a fool.  The young man volunteers to send him some books that would be convincing.

“Very well,” said the old man, preparing to leave as the train came to a stop. “You may send them to this address.” And he handed the young man a card, which read:

Louis Pasteur,
Director of the Institute of Scientific Research,

    Pasteur was the humble sort of man who wouldn’t even think of trying to enter an argument by boasting of his own superior qualifications.  Handing the young man his calling card was a gentle way of deflating the young man’s ego without inflating his own.

    Note that humility does not keep a great man from doing great things—be he a scientist, a musician, a statesman, an architect, or just a great man among the common folks.  Humility just makes a person give credit where credit is due.  The great man knows what he does well and has no hesitation in doing it as well as he is able.  He also knows when to admit his limitations and to ask the help of those better qualified than he.

    This morning’s epistle is instructive.[4]  Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, an enthusiastic but unruly people, impetuous to act, often enough trying to outshine one another.  Elsewhere, he tries to restrain them from their zeal for “speaking in tongues”—something about which they were very proud.  But, here he says:

    To one through the Spirit is given the utterance of wisdom; and to another ... knowledge ... to another the gift of healing... the working of miracles ... prophecy... the distinguishing of spirits ... various kinds of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But all these things are the work of one and the same Spirit, who allots to everyone according as he will. [5]

    Each person is to do whatever utilizes the gifts which the Holy Ghost has chosen to bestow upon him.  He must recognize that there are things that he cannot do.  And he must recognize that he can do these things only because the Holy Ghost empowers him—and that other men have enabled him;  those who wrote the Scriptures, those who expounded upon the Scriptures, and those who travelled miles braving hardship and persecution to preach them.  The point is that man can do very little by his own individual effort until he recognizes his need for the graces of God and the contributions of his fellow men.

    Let me mention one final thing.  There is a false sort of humility that is really pride in disguise.  It is the make-believe humility of calling attention to one’s own shortcomings—shortcomings either real or imagined.  To boast about being poor, or ugly, or clumsy, or untalented, or whatever, is still boasting—just like the Pharisee in our parable boasted about his holiness.  And, certainly, we should never boast about how humble we are!

    Faith, Hope, and Charity regulate our relationship with God—they are “supernatural” virtues.  Humility also regulates our relationship with God, but, primarily, it regulates our relationship with the men and women around us—we can call it a “natural” virtue.  It may well be the most important of all such virtues, for virtually every sin is made possible by the lack of humility.  The prideful, self-important man has no need of God and has no time for Him.  He feels he is more important than his neighbor, so he feels no compunction at all in lying to him, cheating him, taking his property, taking his wife, or even taking his life!  A little bit of humility would show such a man the folly of such sinful behavior.

“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”


[1]   Gospel: Luke xviii: 9-14

[2] “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.” Albert Einstein on quantum mechanics, published in The London Observer, April 5, 1964;

[4]   Epistle: 1 Cor. xii: 2-11

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