Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Queen of Virtues

The musical morality play, 'Ordo Virtutum', that I watched last weekend called Humility the Queen of Virtues and the wounded soul goes to her for healing, invoking her as "O vera medicina", true medicine. In a similar manner, the Lord in today's Sunday Liturgy calls on the overburdened and tired soul to go to him for rest and healing, for he is "gentle and humble in heart" (Mt 11:29). Something about Jesus' humility becalms the souls, gives rest and attracts. As such, he can say: "Come to me..." (Mt 11:28) and truly one who beholds his humble and gentle heart will be drawn to him.
In my experience the most attractive people are those who are gentle and humble.

Only yesterday, the parish of St Stephen's buried a gentleman who was very accomplished and well-respected in the town, a doyen of local society and head of a prominent local family, an administrator of Skipton Castle. But despite all this, he was, by all accounts, a humble and kind man, gentle with people, full of humour and loving. These qualities are evident in his sons and it was even commented upon by the undertakers, in contrast to his other clients! This family had every right to demand a grand funeral but from the very start they insisted on a simple Mass and their unassuming and humble ways stood out in contrast to the many grandiose and fussy funerals I have witnessed. And this kind of humililty and kindness is very attractive. I can think of learned priests and theologians, bishops and abbots, titled lords, great men and women of society whom I have met and the ones who impressed me most and drew me to them were those who were simple, unassuming and kind - they had a true humility and gentleness of heart. I have much to learn from them! In comparison, those who are proud, who lord it over others, who are vainglorious and pretentious are often the most repulsive people. Such people may have great accomplishments behind them but somehow their pomposity negates their achievements. So, clearly one is drawn to true humility and this is certainly why one is drawn to Jesus Christ.

But humility does not mean that one has to ignore or hide one's talents and achievements. In fact the nature of humility is such that it shines brighter in a person with talents and accomplishments of some degree. "Humility in another is beautiful to see", said Basil Cardinal Hume, OSB, and it is best expressed in a person who knows one's own worth but recognises that this comes as a gift from God and so does not deserve any praise for it. It is also a recognition of just how much one in lacking in one way or another. For the opposite of humility is pride which is a certain self-sufficiency whereby one regards oneself as all-important, all-knowing and all-capable; one is deluded with imaginations of self-apotheosis. For only God is self-sufficient; creatureliness, by its very nature and definition is one of lack and needful-ness. And these latter characteristics are implicit in any child. As any parent and adult knows, children rely on them for sustenance, growth and flourishing.

Unsurprisingly then, Jesus says that "mere children" know the way into the secrets of the kingdom and the learned and wise don't. (cf Mt 11:25). In fact, the NRSV translation refers to them as "infants". Jesus paints this juxtaposition because children, by their nature, are gentle and humble in heart but the learned and intelligent are dangerously inclined towards hubris. This reminds me that hence, Dominicans are not called to be among the learned teachers, nor academics, nor wise philosophers. Rather, they are called to be preachers of the Truth and study is but a tool to facilitate a more faithful and meaningful preaching. That they do in fact become learned in the process is incidental. Nonetheless, we need to beware that one does not become seduced by learning and one's intellect and so become inflated with intellectual pride! Truly, the attitude to adopt is that of the child who listens and desires to learn, always aware of his limitations and how much more remains to be learnt and discovered. Only by the child-like way of humility do the mysteries of the kingdom lie open... As Cardinal Hume says in 'To be a Pilgrim': "Men and women of true eminence and real wisdom often have a deep humility... It is good to meet a very learned but wise person, and to find in that person the wonder and simplicity of the child." (p67)

As our model of such humility, one can always look to Our Lady who was chosen to be the Mother of God, the "highest honour of our race" (cf Judith 15:9). She is deserving of our highest praise, hyperdulia, and indeed of much honour. And yet, she claimed to be merely the "handmaid of the Lord" (Lk 1:38) and throughout her life gave glory to her Son, saying, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). Throughout her life, with child-like wonder, she pondered the mysteries of God in her heart (cf Lk 2:51b). Clearly she is a paragon of humility despite being the most "blessed among women" (Lk 1:42) and therein lies the paradox: her greatness lies in her great humility. But of course, there is one even greater than Mary whose humility was and is endless, a humility born of love. It is the Lord who, in the words of the First Reading, "comes to you... humble and riding on a donkey" (Zech 9:9). The fact is that the Lord is king, victorious, triumphant, glorious in power (ibid.) but he takes to himself none of those accoutrements of grandeur and power or kingship. His steed is a donkey, that ignominous beast of burden. His throne is a wreath of thorns. His throne is the Cross. As Philippians 2:5-8 reminds us, the humility of Christ was so great that the Son of God did not only become man and take on our human condition. Christ's kenosis is so complete that he takes on our sins and dies on the Cross. This is a humility like none other and yet St Paul asks us to always bear this in mind, especially if we are prone to pride and boastfulness... and I admit I fall squarely in that category!

Interestingly, one of the lines given in the libretto of 'Ordo Virtutum' by Bl Hildegard von Bingen to 'Humility' echoes the initial lines of the First Reading:

"O daughters of Israel, God lifted you up from under the tree;so now remember
how it was planted;Rejoice therefore, daughters of Zion."

As such, Hildegard's 'Queen Humility' calls to mind the tree of life, the Cross, which was planted in love and humility in order to heal and save us. It is precisely this love and humility flowing from his gentle and humble heart which makes the insurmountable burden of the Cross easy and light for Christ. It is therefore this same love and humility that we need to develop if we too are to rise from beneath the weight of our own burdens. Thus we are urged in the Gospel to "shoulder [his] yoke and learn from [Jesus]" (Mt 11:29). It would seem that Jesus does not in fact take away our burdens; rather he shares his very Cross with us and asks us to learn from him how to shoulder burdens! And what can we learn from Christ? An attitude of gentleness and humility in the face of our burdens. So it is that Balthasar says: "The solution lies in Jesus' attitude... he does not sob under the burden loaded on him; he does not complain, does not compare and measure his own strength" (Light of the Word, 107).

Initially such an understanding of the Scriptures can seem rather uncompromising, for Jesus does not offer us an easy balm to our troubled frenzy and problems. Many people and even certain strands of evangelical Christianity expect a Christ who will remove all pain, suffering and discomfort from the lives of the faithful, in this present world. This is clearly not the case in this Gospel. Rather, what Jesus offers is rest, not ease. This restfulness is an attitude of the heart made possible only by the gift of the Spirit (cf Second Reading, Rom 8:9, 11-13). For it is the Holy Spirit that will teach us to have humble and gentle hearts like Christ, because the Spirit is pure humility, never drawing attention to Itself. Thus Von Balthasar writes: "He is the light that cannot be seen except upon the object that is lit up: and he is love between Father and Son that has appeared in Jesus. He does not wish to be glorified himself but glorifies only the Father (Jn 5:41; 7:18)." (Explorations in Theology III: Creator Spirit, p111).

It would appear then that one who receives the Spirit and cultivates such humility is one who is able to learn the Christ-like attitude towards one's trials and burdens. Thus their burden is indeed light and easy for their heart is gentle and humble. This is clearly seen in the saints who bear their trials without complaint and with great patience and even joy. It is also seen in the poor whose humility and faith is such that they bear their difficulties with amazing sufferance and patience. It occurs to me that while the rich, the learned, the proud generally complain about the smallest inconveniences, yet the poor, the humble, the simple generally endure great hardships without any complain! Indeed, they seem cheerful, generous and joyful despite poverty, homelessness, grief and hard labour; their attitude confounds the conventional wisdom of the rich West. Something about the poor, who do not expect great things, whose "heart is not proud, nor haughty [his] eyes" (Ps 131:1), makes possible a sharing in the heart of Christ and the yoke of the Lord. And this humility and attitude to life is comely, attractive to see. Perhaps circumstance has imposed this humility (which becomes a humiliation) upon them. If so, I do not mean to glorify or romanticize poverty, nor condone their oppression. But perhaps it is because in their very lives, they undergo the Cross, that they have developed great humility. If so, this is surely a gift of the Spirit.

Either way, I wish to draw a lesson from their experience and example, which seems to point out to me that we too can share this attitude, if like Christ, we humble ourselves and learn from the Spirit the way of the child, the way of the poor, the way of Christ on the Cross and so too become "gentle and humble in heart." If we allow the Holy Spirit and the example of the poor to teach us this, we will find ourselves content, at rest and unburdened. It is in this regard, that Humility can be called a true medicine and Queen of the Virtues, because the medicine she mediates is the healing balm of the Cross itself, Christ's saving act of loving humility.

The photo above from Laguna, the Philippines is an effigy of Our Lord riding on a donkey, the very image of the humble king, prophesied by Zechariah.


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