August 27, 2016
“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)
Humility doesn’t come easily. It seems that from the beginning, we have been seeking the higher place. Like Adam and Eve, we secretly suspect that God might be holding out on us, that he denies us the freedom and knowledge that is ours by right. The human being is made from humus, earth, and so is in some sense made to be humble, earthy. But instead of humility we have hubris, instead of good grapes, wild grapes.
God saw this woeful state of affairs and made a plan to remedy it. Where at the first he had bent down to the earth and reached out his hand to take some of the earth he had made, to form a man in his own image, now he would take things to another level – a deeper level. He would take that earthen body upon himself, and become the man of earth, even while being the man of heaven. Then he could realize his dream: to be with us, to serve us, to kneel before us and wash our feet. And so humanity could learn humility from its Maker.
“I will not serve,” man says to his Creator. “Then I will serve you,” his Creator says to man. “You sit down. I will minister, I will wash your feet. You rest; I will bear your weariness, your infirmities. Use me as you like in all your needs, not only as your slave but also as your beast of burden and as your property. If you are tired or burdened I will carry both you and your burden, so that I may be the first to keep my own law. “Bear one another’s burdens,” we read, “and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Guerric of Igny, First Sermon for Palm Sunday)
There is shame in having my feet washed by my Lord and Master. Like Peter I cannot look Jesus in the face as he kneels before me. I am angry at this absurd reversal of roles. Why? Because his overflowing kindness reveals my mediocrity; I am “naked, insufficient, disgruntled and malicious” (Thomas Merton).
“Lord, do you wash my feet?” (Jn 13:6)
How can you do this? These feet may be tired and a little sore, but they have not been walking willingly along the way of your commands. I try to find an easier way, a more comfortable way, a somewhat manageable way. These feet drag along in dogged obedience, obedience until death, even beyond death, without quite knowing why they continue. Trudging, not running. Never has self-forgetfulness seemed further from me. Humility smacks of anonymous mediocrity and endless toil, not to mention the intolerable daily grind of letting other people have their way. And now, here you are, kneeling before me, wounding me with your tenderness.
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8)
Shame may not be the best motivator, but perhaps it can be a passage to love. Until I saw him kneeling there, I seemed to have forgotten that this was the Lord I had bound myself to follow until death. Though wedded to the suffering servant, I find in myself no enthusiasm for suffering or for servitude. And yet there is no other way, no other happiness possible for me. If I am to possess the one I love, I have to become like him: poor, lowly, kneeling in the dirt to wash feet. You are the one who must bring this about, Lord. Take me in your hands and form me again from the dust of the earth, to be a human being according to your own heart. You are my humility, O Lord!
“Only of the sisters prefer nothing whatever to Christ will they be happy to persevere in a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.” (OCSO Constitutions, 3.5)