Dominica III post Epiphaniam - Approach God with Humility


LESSON: Humility is the key to prayer

Today’s Gospel presents us with two encounters that seem to be quite different from one another. Yes, naturally, they are both healing miracles, but what else do these two events have in common. The diseases are different, one has leprosy, and the other has palsy. The requests come from different sources, the first from the sick man himself, the second from the sick man’s superior. Even the settings are different, the first is immediate and in person, the second is from a distance.
Besides the fact that Our Lord happened to heal two people back to back after completing His Sermon on the Mount, what connects these two encounters that the Church presents them to us together today? The answer, if we look closely enough, is humility.
The leper, we are told, came and “adored” the Lord. The Greek word used here is prosekynei, a word which does mean “worship” or “adore”, but implies kneeling or prostration. In other words, the leper, even before making his request, placed himself in a posture of humble reverence. Then, as he makes his request, he simply says, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” He doesn’t demand, he doesn’t cajole, in fact he doesn’t even ask, he leaves it entirely up to the Will of the Lord, and his humble prayer is answered.
In the second encounter, the Centurion, like the leper, does not demand or even ask anything of the Lord, he simply makes the need known, and trusts in the Lord’s Will, and when the Lord offers to go to his home to heal his servant, he utters the words that are so symbolic of humility that we echo them at every Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.”
The sin of pride has divided humanity from God ever since the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to be “like gods”, but today’s culture is one of such entitlement that it’s hard not to be infected by it, and that can be disasterous for our spiritual life and relationship with God.
The catechism tells us that, “humility is the foundation of prayer”, and as St. Gregory the Great says even more strongly, “Gathering virtues without humility is like carrying dust in the wind.” Without true humility, our spiritual life will never advance, and our life of prayer will bear no fruit.

ILLUSTRATION: Abbot Serapion sniffs out false humility

Pride is a very devious vice, as we all know, and when we are on the lookout for it, it likes to disguise itself as the very thing that we are trying to cultivate in order to elimate it, humility. Pride, however, can never fully disguise itself, and St. Bernard gives us a hint of what to look for to identify false humility.
False humility will often very easily accept humiliations that God sends to us directly, but will fail when it comes to humiliations that God sends us through the agency of other people. We can also identify it by the way we accept humiliations. If we endure them with bitterness, we know it is false humility, but even accepting them with patience is not enough. True humility welcomes humiliations with gladness.
St. John Cassian was a monk and theologian who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In the early centuries of Christianity, monasteries did not exist as they do today, monks would often live on their own, or in small communities in the desert, and particularly holy monks would often be sought out for their wisdom by younger monks and pilgrims.
In his writings, Cassian tells of an encounter between a certain Abbot Serapion, and a young monk who had come to seek his wisdom.
When the young monk arrived, he began by making a great display of his lowliness by both his dress and his words. As they prayed, the Abbot asked him, as was his custom, to offer a prayer at the end of the Divine Office (as this was long before the Office took on the formal structure that we have today). The young monk refused the request, and instead he debased himself and declared that he was involved in such crimes that he did not even deserve to breathe the air which is common to all. He refused to use the mat that the monks sat upon, instead preferring to sit on the bare ground.
He refused to participate in the washing of the feet that the monks performed as an act of charity, and after dinner when the Abbot gave his customary conference, he urged the young monk not to roam about, idly and vaguely, letting his thoughts wander to worldly things, but rather to keep to his cell, and he counselled him to support himself by his own efforts and not rely on handouts from others.
At this point, the young monk was filled with such disgust that he could not hide his look of annoyance any longer. The Abbot immediately reproached him saying:

Thus far, my son, you have loaded yourself with the weight of all kinds of crimes, not fearing lest by the confession of such awful sins you bring a reproach upon your reputation; how is it then, I pray, that now, at our simple admonition, which involved no reproof, but simply showed a feeling for your edification and love, I see that you are moved with such disgust that you cannot hide it by your looks, or conceal it by an appearance of calmness?

He went on to remind the young monk that the humble man does not go around boasting about how terrible he is, or making a show of his humility. Rather he humbles himself inwardly and his humility will shine forth when others wrong him, or accuse him, and he thinks nothing of it.

APPLICATION: True humility comes through prayer

If our spiritual lives are going to bear fruit true humility is a necessary disposition for our prayer, so says the Roman Catechism. How, then, do we go about cultivating that humility. Abbot Serapion gave us our first clue, it must be done inwardly. The Roman Catechism completes the answer, by diligence and focus in prayer. That is one of the paradoxes of the spiritual life, we need humility to pray, but we gain humility by prayer. It might sound like a Catch-22, but with the right focus in our prayer, we will find ourselves on the right track.
St. Bonaventure gives us three paths for our meditations in order to grow in humility:
The first path is the contemplation of God. We must always see God as the Author of all good, and because he is the author of all good, then we need to refer all good to Him and none to ourselves. All that we have, all our gifts, our strengths, all that we have in this life has been given to us by the hand of God, particularly our redemption.
The second path consists in remembering Christ. Meditate on Christ’s own humility in submitting to the shameful death of the Cross, how he was treated like a common criminal and an outcast, abandoned by nearly everyone, mocked and spat upon, all done willingly for us.
The third path is humble self-examination. Consider where you came from, and where you are going. Remember that you are made of the dust and slime of the earth, that you have kept company with sin. Remember that you will one day return to the dust of the earth, and that everything we have is temporary, we can be alive today and dead tomorrow, wise today and foolish tomorrow, rich and mighty today and a poor beggar tomorrow.
Our Lord granted the prayers of the two men in today’s Gospel, because they came to Him with humble hearts. While the world tells us that pride is the answer, we know that true humility is the only way. It is the only way that our lives will bear true fruit, and that we will become worthy of God’s grace.
As we continue with the celebration of this Holy Mass, let us make the words of the Centurion truly our own, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
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