We all know the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple (Lk 18:9-14). “But then the tax collector, aware of his own deep humility, looked upon the Pharisee and said: Lord, I thank thee that I am not such as this man, who fasts and prays and gives alms unto the poor. Rather, in the depth of my sinfulness is the greatness of my repentance, so am I exalted far above this other man.”
Or something like that.
No, wait a minute. The above is a mash-up of Scripture that came to me courtesy of my old boss Tom Hoopes, recently departed from many years as editor of the National Catholic Register. I wish I could claim credit for this brilliant illustration of the perverse uses which can be made even of Christianity’s deepest impulses. I’ve seen people really do this — for instance, Catholic bloggers who seem to boast about the depth of their former sins, and wallow in their specialness compared to dreary, bourgeois churchgoers who’ve always tried to follow the rules. There’s a certain type of “penitent” who delights in playing the perpetual prodigal son, always deserving of the fatted calf. Just by going one more day without doing heroin, or cheating on their spouses, they think they are forever causing greater joy in heaven than whole cloisters full of holy Carmelites. The trick is to stay the “lost sheep,” and never blend in and become one of those boring 99 . . .
Another instance came in a documentary I once saw made by an earnest post-Christian Dane who’d misread far too much Kierkegaard. Now used around the world as part of mandatory “diversity training,” it’s called American Pictures. In it, the journalist Jacob Holdt mentioned how he sought out the lowliest, most oppressed people in America, living among them to learn their stories. There was clearly a humane, even theological, impulse behind this quest, and Mr. Holdt had me walking right along with him — until the Dane followed his sentiments into what he called “the most despised of subcultures, the black drag queens of San Francisco.”
As he traipsed along behind these glittery, towering transvestites, this well-meaning young man spoke about them in the language of the Gospels, implicitly comparing them to the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, and any number of other penitent sinners. Except, of course, what the drag queens wanted wasn’t healing and repentance — but absolute social acceptance of their lifestyles and stylin’ lives. You can diagnose the sentimental cancer that is liberal Christianity as the impulse to accede to such demands, metastasized, replicating itself unhindered by natural law or revelation.
All of which is to say that humility isn’t a virtue you’re meant to boast about — and simply being abject doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the meek who will inherit the earth. A lot of felons are pretty abject in prison, and it’s often the child-molesters and rapists in there who get treated the worst. Cry me a river.
However, we shouldn’t be too impatient with people who misunderstand humility, since even the way certain holy people talk about it emits more heat than light. When canonized saints go on at length on how they’re the lowest of sinners, it can serve as a wholesome reminder to those of us tempted to lazy smugness. Or it just might induce a bout of scrupulosity so severe that it leads us to give up. If even Mother Teresa trembled for her salvation . . . really, what’s the point? Would you pass me that bong, Lebowski?
Of course, when the topic of humility comes up, the elephant in the bathtub — or, at least, the holy card crudely taped to the dashboard of the minivan — is the Litany of Humility. Penned by the deeply spiritual Cardinal Merry del Val, a faithful servant of the great St. Pius X, it would seem to come highly recommended. And pious folks I’ve known still swear by it. But give it a read and see why instead I swear at it:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved . . .
From the desire of being extolled . . .
From the desire of being honored . . .
From the desire of being praised . . .
From the desire of being preferred to others. . .
From the desire of being consulted . . .
From the desire of being approved . . .
From the fear of being humiliated . . .
From the fear of being despised . . .
From the fear of suffering rebukes . . .
From the fear of being calumniated . . .
From the fear of being forgotten . . .
From the fear of being ridiculed . . .
From the fear of being wronged . . .
From the fear of being suspected . . .
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I . . .
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease . . .
That others may be chosen and I set aside . . .
That others may be praised and I unnoticed . . .
That others may be preferred to me in everything. . .
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should. . .
A Catholic shrink I once knew said he kept this prayer out of the hands of the clinically depressed; indeed, the speaker in this prayer sounds like he’s already afflicted with that condition. I’d also keep it away from spouses of any kind of addict, and pretty much every teen — except for beauty queens and quarterbacks. Just reading the thing, I can feel the serotonin draining out of my head. What is more, St. Thomas teaches that it’s wrong for us to practice humility when it tempts others to sin. That means that accepting abuse, or resigning yourself needlessly to suffering an injustice, may in fact be un-Christian things to do. Nowadays we call it “enabling.”
Now, it’s critical for Christians to slip the snares of Vainglory — the yearning for undeserved praise, and the tendency to take personal pride in things God handed you on a silver platter. Many instances of ethnic, racial, or national pride amount to one form or the other. I’ll never forget the racialist who pointed to the Adirondacks and said to me with a smile: “See those mountains? White men built those mountains.” (“See those pyramids? African Americans built those pyramids.”)
But the sentiments in the litany seem less a rejection of such nonsense than a comprehensive denial of most of the natural impulses God built into our psyche. To make this point more fully: If it’s good to wish all these things for one’s self, then one should equally wish them for one’s children. I challenge the reader to go through the litany above and substitute for “I” the words “my son” or “my daughter.” Hence, “That others may be loved more than my son, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” That kind of takes the red paint right off the Schwinn, doesn’t it?
Of course, there’s a way to give this litany a more charitable reading, and here I think we might come upon the truth behind the holy card: In the first part of the prayer, you’re asking Christ to deliver you from desire and fear: desire for good but inessential things, and fear of all sorts of suffering — which in itself is objectively evil. Now God can bring good out of evil, but that doesn’t mean we should go out and canonize Judas, no matter what National Geographic says. Our Lord in Gethsemane wasn’t pumped up about the prospect of His suffering; he hadn’t pestered a spiritual director into letting Him volunteer to die on a cross. He begged the Father to spare Him, and I think here we should follow His example. The Church encouraged martyrs to be steadfast; she steadfastly didn’t encourage people to seek martyrdom. There was a whole school of heretics in the early Church called the Circumcellions, who made their name by rushing out and taunting Roman officials until they got themselves fed to the lions. (Happily, this kind of heresy tends to persecute itself.)
Insofar as we ask God to free us from anxiety over the future, we’re acting like penitent packrats who bring in a professional organizer to help us throw out half our stuff: By unloading extra baggage, and weaning ourselves away from excessive attachment to the easy and the pleasant, we’re freeing ourselves for service. If I really cannot bear to fly coach, that will usually mean I can’t afford to travel. Likewise, if the only time you can bear to witness to the gospel is among like-minded folks who will nod and pass the donuts, your usefulness to the Kingdom is rather . . . limited. In this light, I can see why St. Ignatius insisted that his Jesuits try to cultivate what reads to me like a punishing version of humility: actively wishing to suffer as Jesus did. By freeing men up from wholesome natural impulses, you can make them psychologically almost bulletproof — which is why the Church’s persecutors, from the Samurai to Elizabeth I’s professional priest-hunters, were always most scared of the Jesuits. They’d been through humility boot camp.
Still, for most of us, a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. St. Thomas teaches that humility is a subdivision of the virtue of Temperance — the rational estimation of one’s true merits, seen in the cold light both of one’s sins and of God’s many gifts. A consistent awareness that all our good acts are only possible (after the Fall) thanks to actual graces, and that our very existence is contingent on God’s deciding each moment to keep us from falling into the Void . . . all this should be quite enough to keep the average man from succumbing to Vainglory. (“See this great country? Catholics founded this country.”)
Myself, I think the good cardinal’s litany should be reserved for future missionaries to Burma and patients with a formal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s not so much a humility nutrient as a humility chemo. And myself, I’m kind of vain about my nice brown head of hair.