Last week we had the image of the narrow gate. I suggested that one way of thinking about this was in terms of attention. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that we need to develop our attention, and then focus it on the right things. We looked at how much of today’s society is designed around precisely the opposite. I also noted how more and more science is pointing to the importance of attention for basic health. I am sure you have seen the increasing number of news stories about the effect our world is having on the mental development of children and young people generally.
Seeing the narrow gate last week in terms of attention has another benefit. It can help us broaden our understanding of what is contained in the Word of God. Too often we can reduce the Gospel to moralising. We can sometimes see this when Christianity is reduced to so-called Gospel values. Not only does this reduce the personal reality of Christianity, namely, the encounter with God, it also greatly reduces the mystery of the gospel and so the potential riches that are available in prayer.
I think we can see something similar in today’s readings. Our first reading speaks of the importance of humility. Then we have a potential lesson in humility in our gospel: take the lower seat. Fair enough. There does seem to be an easy lesson in not big-noting oneself. However, this is just a start. Our second reading paints a much bigger picture of what is going on. A cosmic, apocalyptic image of what is actually happening all around us at every moment. A picture that will be revealed in all its majesty at the end of time, but one in faith we have access to now.
I think it is very important not to lose sight of this image when we pray about these readings. As St Teresa of Avila notes, when it comes to prayer, it is absolutely central first to remember who I am talking to. Our second reading then helps us remember that Jesus, the one who is speaking this parable, Jesus is God, Jesus is the Word through whom all things are made. We can skip over this too quickly. Thus, when he speaks, there are aspects we are scarcely able to comprehend. Christ in giving us himself is giving us the very nature of reality. And so, much like with attention, there is a deep, deep meaning to humility.
Today, we celebrate the feast of St Augustine, one of the great fathers of the Church. He thought it impossible to overemphasise the importance of humility for the spiritual life. He famously wrote:
“If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.”
St Augustine thought that if one wanted to rise to heaven, one needed to build deep foundations, and the digging of these foundations was the taking of the lowest place that we hear about in today’s gospels. The first step to spiritual growth was to face up to reality, face up to one’s poverty, one’s need. This is the way of humility.
However, if we think about this further, it makes perfect sense in all walks of life. I cannot learn something if I think I know everything. I cannot grow as a person if I don’t think I have room to grow. Or when it comes to art, I cannot see something, hear something, describe something, if I don’t take a backseat to beauty and let reality express itself to me. From all these perspectives, humility then just becomes the necessary first posture in relation to life.
I mentioned earlier the attack on attention we are all experiencing. There is also an attack on humility. A friend of mine suggested to me that FOMO – fear of missing out – was an attack on humility. I can’t do everything, I can’t read everything, watch everything, understand everything. But living as if I should, which goes hand in hand with the attack on attention, is a failure to realise my own inherent limitation, and therefore a failure of humility.
So what can we do? Might I suggest one spiritual practise: the cultivation of silence. Silence is a way of taking the lower seat. Silence allows other things to speak. True silence allows the more important things to speak. Deep silence allows God to speak. All this can teach humility.
So, we might pray in our Mass this weekend for the gift of humility, taking our lead from Christ who said to his Father not my will but yours. Let’s pray for the development of interior silence so that we can become better at allowing others to speak, most importantly, the Holy Spirit.