Many years ago, when I was fresh out of seminary and a new kid in the diocese, I found myself at a clergy conference. I did not know a soul at this particular gathering and I remember entering the crowded dining hall on the first night and feeling completely lost. There were no faces that I recognized and no apparent open spaces at the tables. Perhaps you have been in a similar situation. My misery ended when I spotted a place to sit right across from the bishop. I made my way over and asked if I could join him. I was encouraged to do so.
Over the course of the meal I saw the bishop in a new light—not as the spiritual and judicial authority of the diocese, but relaxed in conversation with long-time friends. He talked and joked with others at the table who were obviously near and dear to him. The conversation rolled casually from church affairs to committee work to seminary days. The bishop was polite to me, asking how things were going in my new position and other usual pleasantries. His friends tolerated the intrusion I represented and I was grateful for the chance to be with them. The meal ended when a priest asked for some private time with the bishop and he excused himself. Without a good-bye the others left shortly thereafter and I remained sitting alone.
The next morning I went to the dinning hall for breakfast intent on meeting some new people. I saw a table with a tray on it and plenty of open chairs. I sat down not knowing whose tray it was, but confident that others would be joining me soon. It turned out that the tray belonged to… the bishop. For the second straight meal I was seated directly across from him. The other spaces were quickly filled by the same priests I had eaten with the night before. The bishop said good morning to me and not much more. His friends barely acknowledged my presence.
That breakfast was torture but it gave me a chance to sit back and observe the nature of the people who held forth in the king’s court. They talked in a kind of coded language, never once bothering to explain the discussion to me or to draw me in. They openly planned their afternoon’s golf outing, never once asking if I played or would like to join them. And as the conversation wore on I noticed that they didn’t so much talk to each other as they talked to each other through the bishop. They never looked directly at each other, only the bishop. They never directly addressed each other, only the bishop. It dawned on me that for each one of these priests only two people really mattered—himself and the bishop.
Someone once observed that a significant number of clergy share a lethal combination of two personality traits—low self-esteem and high idealism. If you look at any of us long enough you will see a person who has a deep need to good and an even deeper need to be recognized for doing good. For my colleagues, sitting with the bishop had a lot to do with their need for recognition and its derivative, self-worth. Seeing that helped me to understand their rude behavior as being nothing personal. It also strengthened my resolve to find new companions at lunch!
That episode came back to me as I pondered the Gospel reading for today. When Jesus encourages us not to sit at the best seat at the table He is not so much spelling out Emily Post-like manners for a social function as He is talking about one of the cardinal virtues of the religious life: humility.
Humility is one of the most misunderstood traits of our time. We tend to think of it in terms of self-effacement, but it is not that. For instance, when you work hard at putting together a dinner party and someone compliments you, being humble does not mean saying, “Oh, it was nothing,” or “the food could have been better.” That is self-effacing. And being humble does not mean hiding in the kitchen so no one can express their appreciation. True humility accepts the complement graciously. When someone says, “This dinner is wonderful,” humility might respond, “Thank you, I am so glad you are having a nice time.” When the boss says, “You did a good job on this project,” humility might say, “It was important to me to give it my best effort.”
If humility is not self-effacement, then what is it? The saints of the Church tell us that it has something to do with truth and peace. In the spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written in 14th century England by an anonymous author, we find this thought:
A person is humble when he stands in the truth with a knowledge and appreciation for himself as he really is.
A humble person knows his or her own shortcomings and appreciates his or her own gifts. In other words, he or she knows the truth about himself or herself and accepts it.
Two centuries earlier, St. Francis spoke about the truth we each must find about ourselves:
Blessed is the servant who esteems himself no better when he is praised and exalted by people then when he is considered worthless, simple, and despicable; for what a person is before God, that he is and nothing more.
One of our deepest cravings by virtue of being human is a longing for affirmation—a desire to be recognized as being somebody. Where we take that desire and how do we seek to have it met is one of our most critical undertakings in the journey we call life.
Francis says that who we are is who we are as we stand before God. We are nothing more, nothing less. Who am I before God? Well, I certainly am not who I could be, but I am loved by the Author of all things. I am not perfect, but I am forgiven by the God of all mercy. I am not spectacular by any measure of the world’s standards, but I am dear and precious to the One who made me and is about the work of molding me day by day. The humble person knows this truth and the humble person derives from it an abiding sense of peace because the core of who he or she is rests safely in God. It can not be inflated by people’s praise nor can it be deflated by people’s poison.
The poet of the 112th Psalm wrote this about those who are humble...
...their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.
Their heart is established and will not shrink.
The humble person then is the one who knows the truth about himself, who sees himself as God sees him, and as a result is at peace.
And from this self-perception, the humble person enters the world in a new way. Anthony de Mello of the Society of Jesuits, in his book, One Minute Wisdom, describes it this way:
The spiritual Master frequently told his disciples that holiness, like beauty, is only genuine when unselfconscious. He loved to quote the verse,
The Rose: she blooms because she blooms,
and does not ask why,
Nor does she prune herself
to catch my eye.
It is only when we derive our identity from being a child of God, not of the world, that we are able to let go of the insatiable need for self-inflation and move out in love toward others, especially those who will not advance us in some way. It is only when our sense of self is grounded in grace, in the eternal reality that we are loved by God, that we are able to break the tyranny of self-inflation and love others as we have been loved.
So, back to that clergy conference. At lunch I looked long and hard for a new place to sit. To my right was a table with the bishop and his friends. To my left was another table with a rather disheveled looking fellow, an over-weight woman, and some other rather non-descript folks. That is where I sat down. I was warmly greeted and genuinely engaged. In fact, the conversation carried over on to the lawn in front of the hall after the kitchen crew kicked us out and it lasted long into the afternoon. I found these colleagues to be genuine people who, though they were not outwardly beautiful enough to sit at the king’s table, had been inwardly transformed by the King of kings.
In a few moments I will invite you to join me at the King’s table where He is the host and each one of us are a valued guests. No matter who you are, no matter what ugliness you have done in life, God invites you to come to this table. God asks you to take the seat next to Him as you are and nothing more. God’s very self will be grafted into your heart. In this era of power lunches and positioning, where its not who you are but who you know that really matters, the Eucharistic meal beckons us to put our trust in God and His love for us. Let God be established in your heart and it will not shrink. May the truth of God’s love make you humble—at peace.