The Beauty of Humility

(Homily for Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Bottom line: Humility makes possible a relationship to others, including God.

About one hundred and sixty years ago, a Scottish surgeon named Sir James Simpson made an important discovery. In 1847, Dr. Simpson was conducting experiments with chloroform. He realized that by using chloroform, doctors could perform operations without causing pain to their patients. His discovery revolutionized modern medicine. Toward the end of his life, Simpson was lecturing at the University of Edinburgh. One of the students asked him what he considered his most valuable discovery. The students expected him to recount how he came upon the medical use of chloroform. To the surprise of the students, Dr. Simpson replied, "My most valuable discovery was when I discovered myself a sinner and that Jesus Christ was my Savior."

Dr. James Simpson exemplifies the humility that today's readings describe. The first reading praises the beauty of humility. Its author, Jesus ben-Sira (Sirach) had spent years studying wisdom literature and meditating on the Jewish Scriptures. At the end of his life, Sirach gave this advice, "My child...Humble yourself the more, the greater you are."

It is a beautiful thing when a great man humbles himself. Sir James Simpson is an example of an eminent scientist who was also a humble Christian. There are other examples: Copernicus - the Polish astronomer who postulated the modern theory of the solar system - prayed the Liturgy of Hours his entire adult life. Everyone knows that Isaac Newton uncovered the laws of gravity, but not many know that he read the Bible daily and believed that God created everything. Niels Stensen (Steno) - the founder of modern geology - converted to the Catholic faith and became a priest. Another Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, was the first to formulate the so-called Big Bang Theory of the universe. The list could go on and would include scientists such as Sir Francis Bacon, Louis Pasteur - and Galileo. Many of the greatest scientists were also practicing Christians. The more they learned, the more they realized their need for God.* They followed Sirach's dictum: The greater you are, the more you should humble yourself.

When you think about it, every human relationship depends on humility. A guy who is arrogant and demanding can never be a good husband, a good father or a good friend. He is so full of himself that he has no room for anyone else. A humble person makes a place for the other person. Sirach put it this way, "conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts."

Humility is not easy to come by. I remember a woman telling me, "Father, I want to be a humble wife, but it is hard. The problem is," she said, "I am always right and he is always wrong." I know just how she feels, don't you? How difficult to admit that we are sometimes wrong - or, to say, "maybe I am right, but my relationship to that person is more important than proving I am right." Conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

Humility makes possible a relationship with other people. It also makes possible a relationship with God. I remember reading a poster which said: "To maintain sanity keep two things in mind: First, God exists. Second, I am not him." To have a relationship with God, a person has to stop trying to be God.

A few years ago they made a movie about the billionaire Howard Hughes. The movie depicted him as a man who considered himself superior to everyone, a law unto himself who treated other people as objects. Eventually he went insane. In today's Gospel, Jesus says that everyone who exalts himself will be brought down.

But he also says that everyone who humbles himself will be lifted up. Humility, when you come down to it, is simply recognizing the truth: God exists - and I am not him. Or as Sir James Simpson said: his most important discovery was not the medical use of chloroform. His most important discovery was that he is a sinner and that Jesus Christ is his Savior.

Now, I mentioned Howard Hughes as an example of a wealthy man who seemed to exclude God from his life. It does not have to be that way. I would like to conclude with the example of the multi-millionaire, Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he was on his deathbed, Vanderbilt asked his valet to sign a hymn. An elderly black man, the valet sang these words:

	Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
	Weak and wounded, sick and sore.
	Jesus, ready, stands to save you.
	Full of mercy, love and pow'r.
	Let not conscience make you linger.
	Nor of fitness fondly dream.
	All the fitness He requireth,
	Is to feel your need of Him!
At the conclusion of the hymn, forgetting his millions, Vanderbilt said, "I'm a poor and needy sinner."

Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.


*Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher who developed the scientific method of inquiry based on experimentation and inductive reasoning, said "It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity." (In Bacon's day "philosophy" encompassed what we call "science.")

From Archives (22nd Sunday, Year C):

2013: Why Are We Here?
2010: The Key to the Narrow Gate
2007: The Beauty of Humility
2004: Arrogance and Vainglory
2001: The Guest List
1998: Saved by Grace Alone

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Bulletin (A Disturbing Statistic, Blessed John XXIII Mass, Samwise Encounters Porcupine)


My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(August 2010)

Personal Reflection on New Roman Missal English-Language Translation

My Vocation Story (23 minute video, made at Everett Serra Club on August 14, 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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