Holy Humiliations | Humility: Part 2

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The Necessity of Humiliations

From my earliest years, I was taught by my dad to tuck my undershirt into my underwear. This habit has stuck with me over the years. I’m really not certain why I do it. I guess it helps to keep my shirt from blossoming out above my side rolls and emphasizing the muffin-top effect. But early on this habit came with great difficulty. Since I am a fairly short person, my shirts were typically long enough to tuck into my socks, and when I tucked them into my undies they would bunch up, giving me the appearance of being several months pregnant. A few years ago, while on vacation, my family was in a rush to leave our hotel to get somewhere on time. As was my custom, I tucked my undershirt into my undies, but did not have the time to put on my outer shirt—I would do that later. My wife and kids packed in the van while I loaded our luggage, and as I took my place in the driver’s seat my wife said, “Those guys over there are laughing at you.” “What guys?” I asked as I looked across the parking lot to see a father and his approximately eight-year-old son nearly doubled over laughing. Indignant, I asked, “What are they laughing about?” To which my wife smugly retorted with great satisfaction, “I think it’s because your underwear is sticking out way above your pants.” She began laughing, too, as she finished speaking. I was fuming. Not only was this father and son laughing at me, but now my wife and kids were snickering at daddy and his hiked-up undies. I immediately became defensive and in a feeble attempt to deflect the embarrassment I said something about how I was trying to fit in with all the “homies” who walk around with their undies showing. My wife then brought it to my attention that those homies’ pants are falling off, revealing their underwear— while mine were hiked up to my nipples. As she began laughing even harder, I attempted to even the score by saying something like, “Well, let’s talk about how you look in your undies . . .” Needless to say, it was a quiet ride home. Unfortunately, humiliations are a painful and yet very necessary aspect of our lives. God grants each of us a “desire for greatness, which can be used to glorify God or misused to glorify self as a god” (Joseph’s Way, p. 251), and “how a man responds to humiliations indicates who he is desiring to glorify” (p. 231). As Fr. Cajetan Bergamo says in his book Humility of Heart, “it is one thing to be humiliated and another to be humble.” And as St. Bernard said, “He is humble who converts all his humiliations into humility and says unto God, ‘It is good for me that Thou has humbled me.’” Indeed, humiliations are the path to humility.

Our Lord desires that we become great men, great fathers, who are capable of transmitting his glory to our children. “The dignity of the human being can be summarized as this: being glorified by God by glorifying God” (Joseph’s Way, p. 232). The “formula” for greatness consists in this: humiliations if embraced properly afford humility, and humility if received enables a man to rise from his failings in fortitude, and in doing so consistently he will become a man of greatness. “There is no sanctity without humility,” said St. Augustine, and humility often comes by means of humiliations. “Throughout our lives we will encounter various humiliations which are often the result of being misunderstood by another, misunderstanding another, being rejected by another, making an error, having a fault exposed, or committing a sin. These humiliations are almost never general, but specific to the interior person, piercing man’s disordered ego with pin-point accuracy, penetrating his self-styled image with the reality that he is not God” (p. 250). However, as with me and my underwear crisis, most of us when encountering a personal humiliation respond by using the tactic of deflection. We make excuses and deflect the humiliation with the purpose of placing its burden and the reason for its existence on someone else. Years ago, my wife thought it would be a good idea for “us” to paint the exterior of our home—which actually meant me painting the house. At one point during the project I was using a ladder to finish up a section, and after coming down from the ladder with the paint bucket I realized I had missed a spot. I put the paint down next to the ladder, loaded the brush with paint, and ascended the ladder with only the paintbrush in hand. I touched up the spot and descended. But as I stepped off the ladder my right foot stepped into the paint bucket and became lodged there. I hopped around the yard attempting to dislodge the paint bucket from my foot, while paint was splattering all over me and the yard. Eventually it came off, and I took off my T-shirt and wrapped it around my shoe to keep paint from being tracked all over the place. At that point, my wife returned from the store and could not resist asking the inevitable questions: “What happened to your foot? Where is your shirt? Is that your shirt on your foot?” After explaining to her what happened, she advised me, in her superintendent’s voice, that the paint bucket should be placed on the ladder, where it is supposed to go. Of course, I was fuming and responded with something like, “Maybe you should be out here painting instead of shopping for lipstick.” I finished painting the house by myself. When we encounter humiliations we are tempted to deflect the humiliations—to put the blame on another. Test this. Over the next week, count how many times you deflect, defend, or excuse yourself. We do this all the time. We drive over the speed limit while becoming enraged at grandma for driving like a tortoise. We fall prey to the sin of lust and blame the beautiful woman for dressing immodestly. We complain about our jobs and blame that knucklehead who gives us a paycheck for making things difficult. We deflect rather than accept humiliation.

Reacting to Humiliations

“As we encounter a personal humiliation we will be tempted to react with our passions, emotionally defending our ego, attempting to deny our personal deficiency. During this collision of our pride and humiliation we must sift thought our passions, straining out all that is emotional, while retaining only prudence’s honest assessment of ourselves and the situation. In other words, after being humiliated, regardless of whether or not others are aware of it, we must resist the temptation to indulge our pride by defending our ego” (Joseph’s Way, pp. 251–52). Upon encountering humiliations we are tempted to react passionately either by becoming discouraged and giving up, walking away, and fleeing; or by fiercely battling back, defending our pride. As St. Augustine said, “Who shall find a man when reproved humble enough to be converted.”

The Saints’ Reactions to Humiliations

St. Louis de Montfort, along with hundreds of peasants, worked daily without payment for fifteen months to erect a monument of Calvary on the hill of Pontchateau. Just as the project was completed, the king demanded that it be demolished, for the Jansenists had convinced the governor of Brittany that the fortress could be used in a revolt against the king. As the company of soldiers destroyed the edifice, St Louis de Montfort exclaimed, “Blessed be God!” (See newadvent.org—St. Louis de Montfort.) St. Alphonsus Liguori, who founded the order of the Redemptionists, was, in his old age, betrayed by his own followers into signing a document that actually dissolved him of his power to lead and eventually “cut him off from his own Order by the [very] Pope who would [eventually] declare him ‘venerable.’” Only after St. Alphonsus’s death was the original rule recognized and reunited under one head. (See newadvent.org—St. Alphonsus Liguori.) As St. Teresa of Avila said, “True humility . . . and the virtue of detachment it seems to me always go together. They are inseparable sisters” (The Way of Perfection). St. Louis and St. Alphonsus were humiliated and their humiliations were embraced by detaching themselves from their egos. To properly embrace humiliations we must detach ourselves from our disordered egos, and by doing so we will receive the virtue of humility, which is the very foundation of greatness.

The Family: The Place of Purification

St. Joseph experienced this firsthand. First, the Virgin Mary, to whom he was betrothed, was discovered pregnant without his cooperation. Second, Joseph’s character came under question in regard to suspicion that he was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy. Third, Joseph was helpless in that there was no immediate solution to his dilemma. Fourth, when Mary was to give birth to Jesus, he was rejected by the Bethlehem villagers, and perhaps his own kinsman. Fifth, the loss of his Son, Jesus, in the temple caused him tremendous anguish. Yet, each time, Joseph chose not to deflect the humiliation, but to remain steadfast in his vocational post and detach himself from his ego. Joseph protected Mary and took the suspicions upon himself. Joseph provided a manger for the Virgin birth. Joseph with meekness brought the Son of God back to Bethlehem to raise him so that he could grow in “wisdom and strength.” During each of these events, Joseph did not despair and flee, but rather embraced the humiliations associated with the events and became a man of humility, a man of great fortitude—a man of greatness. What can we learn from Joseph’s example? “Rather than the domestic church [the family] being a place of refuge from humiliations the domestic church is the place of purifications and personal sanctity by means of humiliation” (Joseph’s Way, p. 250). It is precisely in our relationships with our wives and children that we will be afforded a multitude of opportunities to embrace humiliations without resorting to deflection but rather by detaching ourselves from our disordered ego. (Yes—a multitude of opportunities.)

Consumed by Holy Fire

Just last week, as I was sitting around our fire pit becoming entranced by the dancing flames, I began meditating upon the fact that fire must destroy the material it is burning in order to provide light and heat. You and I, in order to become great fathers, must become like St. Joseph, even like Christ himself, who said, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and how I wish that it were kindled.” Our Lord was the real man, who, though innocent, was unjustly condemned; though a king, was mocked and treated like a slave; though perfect and sinless, “hath made sin for us”; though he is life, he embraced the ignominious death of the cross—all without deflection, but rather, with complete detachment from self. You and I must be consumed by the fire of God in order to warm those around us with his love. Several years ago, my wife and I went to dinner with another couple at a fine Italian restaurant. The waitress, while bringing a tray of full wineglasses to our table, suddenly shrieked as the platter and the wine tipped and spilled all over yours truly. It was devastating. I was soaked to the bone. I looked as though I had been caught in a drive-by shooting. My shirt, my undershirt, my underwear (which the undershirt was tucked into), my belt and pants were sopping wet and purple with vino. It was humiliating. I had two choices: I could leave, infuriated and embarrassed, or I could finish the dinner looking like a fool. I chose the latter—and we had a great time. In a sense, I opted to be consumed by fire in order to warm my wife and our friends with God’s love. It is imperative that you and I allow God’s fiery love to consume us, burn us, and destroy our disordered attachment to our egos by embracing humiliations without deflecting them. Only then will we be able to warm others with God’s love. Hence, this is one reason why the Holy Spirit is known to appear to and descend upon man as fire—to burn away our attachment to self. Just a side note: one of the greatest acts of humiliation in which the fire of Spirit consumes us is in the sacrament of confession. In confession, we confess our sins without making any excuses—just pure, honest assessment.
The Height of Greatness

Converting humiliations into humility is a great challenge, but is worthy of each of us who desire to become great fathers. I personally notice that when I embrace humiliations instead of deflecting, defending, or excusing myself, my wife and children tend to respond to me with love and respect. When I deflect the humiliation and make excuses, I typically can expect my wife and children to do the same. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “For I see that not making excuses for oneself is a habit characteristic of high perfection and very meritorious; it gives great edification” (The Way of Perfection). In other words, a man, a father, who embraces humiliations without excusing himself allows the fire of the Holy Spirit to consume him in order to warm the members of his family with God’s love.