As a religious, one of the most beautiful parts of my daily prayer is singing the Magnificat at Vespers. The humility of the Blessed Mother’s prayer always strikes me. Rather than accepting the praise for herself, her “soul proclaims the greatness of the the Lord.” In fact, this entire prayer proceeds from the attitude of humility, which is so characteristic of the Blessed Mother. The only one who surpasses her in humility is her divine Son, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (Phil 2: 6-7).
I must imitate our Lord and his Blessed Mother in their humility and lowliness if, like them, I wish to be “lifted up” and exalted. Yet in my own life, I often feel like I go through a more or less continuous cycle of “cast down” for my pride and then “lifted up” again once I have accepted the position of being lowly. Surely there must be a way that I can persevere in humility rather than once again giving in to poisonous pride?
At the very outset of his book, Partnership with Christ: A Cistercian Retreat, Dom Eugene Boylan, O.C.R. examines humility and concludes that it is impossible for us to be really humble without first having confidence in God. His insight is that humility is a kind of vulnerability while pride is really, in a certain sense, a self-defense, although not a very good one.
This of course hearkens back to humanity’s first sin recounted in Genesis 3. The first crack in the levy is the serpent’s insinuation that Adam and Eve can’t really trust God; that God doesn’t really have their best interests in view. And indeed, the sin of our first parents was a rejection of dependence on God in favor of an independence wherein they themselves would be “like God.” The consequences of course are disastrous. Far from a liberation, their “independence” reveals to them vulnerabilities (i.e. nakedness) which had never concerned them before. The pride with which they seek to defend themselves swiftly opens chasms in their relationship with God and one another as the “blame game” ensues. Far from being “like God,” their very humanity is reduced by their disordered desire for independence.
Therefore, in order to be truly human and truly alive we do not need to be independent or in control. Rather, in the light of the Incarnation, we can see that to be truly alive is to be conformed to the perfect humanity of Christ, and to participate in his Sonship, by which he gives eternal praise to the Father. Only then can we have the necessary trust in our Heavenly Father, even in the midst of the trials and crosses of our lives; only then can we embrace each moment with humility and in due time be exalted.
Image: Guercino, The Immaculate Conception