28 August 2022
The readings today undoubtedly invite us to reflect on the virtue of humility. The first reading explicitly exhorts us to this virtue, while in the Gospel, Jesus challenges us to the practice of it, giving a parable in which he instructs us on a practical way we can learn this virtue. In the second reading, we are reminded of the mystery we encounter in the worship of the person of Jesus – the mystery before which we can only stand in humility, when we recognise the awesome majesty of our Creator and the mystery of salvation.
In an interview with Bishop Robert Barron on Thursday, Shia LaBeouf (the Transformers actor) announced that he was converting to Catholicism. His spiritual journey, he explained, had come about during a dark part in his life when he was suicidal and grappling with intense shame and depression. LaBeouf was exploring his present acting role as St Padre Pio in his new film to be released next week, when he decided to convert to Catholicism himself. He was inspired partly after, in preparation for filming, LaBeouf lived briefly in a monastery with Capuchin friars in Northern California. “When I walked into this, my life was on fire,” LaBeouf said in the interview. In his conversion he appears to have found peace, connection and forgiveness.
Being a famous actor like LeBeouf must feel in some way like being a sort of god. The world kow-tows to such celebrity, their opinions are taking far too seriously, they can hold forth on any sort of topic and be considered, inexplicably, as a sort of expert. It must be easy to see oneself as the reference point for what is right. Not dissimilar to the attitude of the Pharisees that Jesus encountered.
This is why what Shia LeBeouf said in his interview touched me so deeply. When asked what had led him to his conversion, he said that in his experience of religion and churches over the course of his life, he had the feeling he was being sold something.
Perhaps this is how we are taught to approach every domain of our lives. We are consumers of everything – food, clothes, entertainment, even relationships and morality. What we choose to accept as good and true is what we feel “fits” like a nice a T-shirt, or what we “enjoy” like fast food. It is no surprise then that we become consumers about faith as well. And, so, worship becomes like an advert. The pastor or evangelist must “sell” God or a god to me – often including it being his job to convince me that any demand this faith will make on my life is in line with what I already want. We make God in our own image. We become the sole reference point of what is “right for me” – we become god.
LeBeouf said that his experience of going to the Mass was one not of being sold a car, but rather of being led into something, into mystery. This is a position of humility. In our Catholic worship, we do not primarily come here to do something for God. While it is true that we confess our sins, give thanks, learn intellectually in the sermon, sing and prayer, the primary activity that we gather for is to enter into the mystery that is Present here. That is, we come to led into the mystery of our salvation and willingly be led to participate and receive what God offers us – His Son, and Communion with Him that leads to salvation that is made Present at this altar. As we hear in the Second Reading “What we have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” This knowledge makes us stand back in awe and wonder in God’s Presence (a gift of the Holy Spirit), in a stance of humility. We come not to something that we make, but rather into the Presence of the Creator.
Indeed, the catechism tells us that humility is the foundation of prayer. Perhaps more than that, it is the foundation of discipleship. To be a disciple we must first recognise that we must be led. The Pharisees approached Jesus with an arrogance of “knowing” what the Messiah should look like. The Messiah should fit into their program. Others in the Gospel likewise expect Jesus to perform for them, such as King Herod.
However, the disciples say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. St Padre Pio followed the invitation of Christ even to suffering. St Augustine, whose feast would normally be celebrated today, only experienced his restless heart finally resting when he came to accept the law of God rather than creating a god of philosophies and pleasure.
In the interview, LaBeouf spoke about his view of Jesus, before reading the Gospels, as someone who is “soft, fragile, all loving, all listening” but with “no ferocity, no romance.” What he encountered in the Gospels was a very different, masculine Christ, he said. Perhaps he had been taught previously about the non-challenging image of Jesus who forgives us over and over yet asks nothing of us. When we are willing to approach Our Lord in humility, and hear his words without presumption, we hear that deep call to conversion, radical witness and very difficult self-sacrificing love. Indeed, we experience his love and forgiveness, but we also hear his call to love, repentance, conversion and sacrifice. A life of discipleship is a life where we are sometimes led where we might not ordinarily want to go, but where we experience the greatest love, and salvation.
Perhaps this week let us do three things:
- Do a thorough examination of conscience and prepare for Confession next weekend. Consider the ways in which you may make yourself an idol or god in your life – where you alone are the reference point rather than Jesus and his words in the Gospel.
- Actively, consciously make a choice not to exalt yourself in some concrete situation this week. This is not to be “ostentatiously” humble, but rather to recognise others as worthy of honour. It may be as simple as not to correct someone in a meeting, not to “one up” a family member in a conversation, to allow that boring colleague to tell their story about the weekend that you’re not interested in. Some small act of charity or generosity where, as Jesus speaks of in the Gospel, there is no chance of reciprocity. Giving in to the other, in whom we should always see Christ, teaches us ultimately to give in to God.
- And thirdly, pray the Litany of Humility, asking Our Lord to deliver us from the sin of pride and the desire of being esteemed, extolled and exalted.
In the Gospel today, Jesus implies that humility is a virtue that must be practiced. He doesn’t speak theoretically about being humble. He gives an instruction to act humbly. When we change our behaviours, our feelings follow. When we co-operate with the commands of the Gospel, grace is active and transformative. So the invitation in the Gospel is to an active, conscious decision to choose not to exalt ourselves – in our interactions with others, in our families, in our morality, in our prayer. We are invited to recognise honestly who we are before our Creator, and, in this place, at this altar, to enter into the mystery Who is Present.