Saturday, October 6, 2012

This Nameless Grace, This Hidden Virtue

The supplices – our being bowed low – is the bodily expression, so to speak, of what the Bible calls humility (cf. Phil 2:8). For the Greeks, humility was the attitude of the slave, and so they rejected it. The transformation of values brought about by Christianity sees in it something different. Humility is the ontologically appropriate attitude, the state that corresponds to the truth about man, and as such it becomes a fundamental attitude of Christian existence. St. Augustine constructed his whole Christology, indeed, I would say his entire apologetics for Christianity, upon the concept of humilitas.

He took up the teaching of the ancients, of the Greek and Roman world, that hybris—self-glorifying pride—is the real sin of all sins, as we see in exemplary form in the fall of Adam. Arrogance, the ontological lie by which man makes himself God, is overcome by the humility of God, who makes himself the slave, who bows down before us. The man who wants to come close to God must be able to look upon him—that is essential. But he must likewise learn to bend, for God has bent himself down. In the gesture of humble love, in the washing of feet, in which he kneels at our feet—that is where we find him.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 205-6

Reflection - “Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience. It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God, for it is said: ‘learn not from an angel, nor from man, nor from a book, but from Me, that is, from My indwelling, from My illumination and action in you; for I am meek and humble in heart and in thought and in spirit, and your soul shall find rest from conflicts and relief from thoughts’” (St. John Climacus).

This ‘nameless grace’ of humility which is liturgically expressed in bowing, genuflection, kneeling, is an urgent topic of concern for the world today. The paper’s yesterday report that researchers were able to grow baby mice from the skin cells of an adult mouse; the technical skills to do this with human beings are in the future, but we plow ahead with acquiring them, with never a thought or concern as to whether this is a good thing to do.

We won’t… bow. We seem to be unable to acknowledge—really acknowledge—that there is a God in heaven above us and that we are not the unfettered masters of the universe. That which is the most obvious fact of life, that we are very small creatures and that the reality surrounding us is very big and not in our control, that there is a world of moral principle and virtue that we do not devise and to which we owe obedience—obvious facts that everyone besides King Canute and a few other assorted lunatics have known and known well for all human history elude us today as if they were precious arcane bits of lore.

We won’t bow. And God came to us, comes to us really, in every Eucharist, to teach us how to bow. Jesus bowed down to wash his disciples feet; the same Jesus in the Eucharist and in the confessional bows down to wash us, revive us, feed us, heal us.

Humility is this nameless grace, this hidden virtue, this reality of bowing deep in our soul before God. It is very mysterious—even to talk about humility somehow alters it, adulterates it. Like Job in the face of God’s awesome self-revelation, one is inclined to say ‘I have spoken once; I will not speak again’ (Jb 40:5).

A nameless grace, a hidden virtue… but I fear that if we do not learn to bow, we may break. Hybris is the tragic flaw in the Greek dramas that lays low the great heroes. It will be—already is—our tragic flaw, too.

We who are Christians need to delve into this nameless grace, this hidden virtue. Perhaps we need to model it for the world. Perhaps we need to bow down to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, as God has washed our feet, so that people can see the beauty of humility again. That is where we find God, and that is where we show God to the world which so badly needs Him, and (most of the time) doesn’t know it.

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