In the early days of my community, we lived in Mission Houses, groups of 5 priests and brothers, which were scattered across central Italy. They were places of not only community life which sent preachers into the neighboring towns for two week long missions, but outreach, where people could come for confession, education, and spiritual direction, and where diocesan priests could come for retreats. One day almost 200 years ago, a priest came to one of our houses to make a retreat his archbishop ordered him to. You can imagine what state of mind he was in: he probably wasn’t ready for prayer and reflection.
His carriage dropped him off, threw his bags to the ground, and the man found that the people around him weren’t paying attention to him. He saw a tall, middle aged man nearby with red hair who was wearing dusty work clothes, and he accosted him. The red headed man gave him some advice for his retreat, and the priest replied: “What would you know about such things? Pick up my bags and take me to my room!”
“Yes, sir,” the redheaded man said, and proceeded to show him to his quarters. When they got there, the priest bossed him around in setting everything up, telling him how to make the bed and making him guess what was missing before sending him to get it. The redheaded man replied courteously to him and tried to do everything to make him comfortable until the priest sent him away. A little later one of the brothers knocked on the door and was surprised to find everything in order. He asked, “Who helped you with all this?”
“One of the good brothers, a tall redheaded guy, who was a little older.”
“That wasn’t one of the brothers, that was our director.”
You can imagine what this priest felt in hearing this, “Holy cow, what have I done?” he probably thought to himself (or something like that.) So the priest had the brother so him to the Director right away, where he apologized profusely for treating him so badly. “That is my duty,” the Director said. “We are here to serve.”
“But you are the director general,” the priest said, to highlight the depth of his offense.
“That is precisely the reason,” the Director said calmly. “I have that duty more than the others.”
At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This is countercultural in our time: we spend so much of our effort in our society to exalt ourselves, humility is seemed a mental illness, a sign we’re not right. It’s like the old country song “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble/when you’re perfect in every way…” Humility is misunderstood virtue, perhaps the most misunderstood.
Humility isn’t about beating ourselves up or letting others ridicule us: it is not about deliberate humiliation. It isn’t about sabotaging ourselves, or not trying hard to do what’s right. Humility is about relationship, and a willingness to make a commitment to do what’s necessary to help each other, no matter what that takes. Humility isn’t about weakness, but about incredible strength, to say there’s nothing too simple for us do to in helping someone. Humility isn’t about feeding other’s vices or letting evil run free, because that doesn’t help anyone. Humility is about refusing to nit pick or gossip.
Humility is about radical commitment to others, a willingness to go to great lengths, a willingness to get dirty, a willingness to ignore how others see what we’re doing. Humility is about taking time and making time, about spending our time with other and their needs, even when we have things we may need and want to do. Humility is about a radical commitment to do what needs to be done, a commitment of unconditional service of the dear neighbor without distinction.
Paul spoke about this in the second reading today: about taking care of himself and working hard so as not to burden the Thessalonians, while giving them to Gospel as they needed it, as they could accept it, not demanding they understand the whole message at once. Even though Paul was a preacher and teacher, he practiced humility by not acting like a rock star or showing off his knowledge beyond their understanding.
Jesus always showed humility. Humility comes from the same root as the word for earth (dirt) in Latin: you could say to be humble is to be down to earth. Jesus was down to earth: He washed His disciples feet, He was patient with them when they didn’t understand, He reached out to lepers and outcasts of his society. His mission came first and he was willing to do anything for it, all the way to the Cross.
Jesus come to us in the Eucharist today, and calls us to be down to earth, to be humble. He calls us to be what He needs us to be, and we find our best selves not in self-exaltation or self-promotion but in our response to others. We find our true selves when we are humble, and able to do whatever He needs us to do.