Today, May 2, I’m taking a break from reflections on the daily Psalms to write about humility. I can say with certainty that it is a subject in which I lack expertise. I know this because of how often I need lessons in it. If that isn’t evidence enough, I can consider my own amazement when I’m granted an insight into what it really means.
It takes a special kind of courage to pray for humility, especially if you really mean it. It’s rather impressive and, well, humbling when God is willing to answer such prayers. My first reaction is always – not usually, but always – “Why me, Lord? Why is this happening to me?”
The realization that whatever I’m moping about is really a lesson in humility can be a bit of a shock. It also has its own kind of beauty.
All of this came home to me in a single package when I heard the most wonderful homily on May 1, the third Sunday of Easter, in a little campus chapel that’s part of a parish in a town near my daughter and son-in-law’s lake house. (It’s officially called ‘the Retreat,” but I suspect it will always be the lake house to me.) When we arrived a couple of minutes early for Mass, Father was still on the steps greeting people as they entered. There were some pleasantries about the weather, and then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Keep praying.”
When you have a charism for intercessory prayer, that phrase has special meaning. And coming on the heels of recent times of spiritual darkness, it had even more meaning for me. Sure, he might have been talking about the weather. But the Holy Spirit has been quite busy with me just lately, and I heard Him in that moment.
Father Jegar Fickel is the pastor of the combined St. Mary-St. Paul Catholic Community there in Big Rapids. I don’t know that he’ll ever read this blog, but I can’t write what I need to write without calling him by name. If I heard the Holy Spirit in that pre-Mass greeting, I felt Him wrap up my heart and soul in the homily Father Jegar gave yesterday.
I’ve often heard the phrase “breaking open” or “unpacking” the Scriptures, and I have to admit I’m not especially fond of it; it seems a little precious, in the way that metaphors of that sort often do to me. But Father Jegar absolutely broke open the story of Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples after His resurrection (John 21:1-19), and in his telling of it, he reached right into my heart and broke it open too.
Line by line, he did it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more completely captivated by a homily. He talked about the tenderness with which Jesus loved Peter, all the while knowing, as only Jesus could, how flawed Peter was. He drew parallels between this story and the day Jesus first called Peter. Then he explained how Jesus first asked Peter whether he loved Him in the sense of “agape” – a love that lays down its life for the beloved — and he drew a parallel between this question and Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus. Hearing it, one’s heart would break at what Peter must have felt in this moment, when the response of his heart was that he indeed loved Jesus – as a dear friend. Just as on the night he denied Jesus, Peter was not yet so sure that he would lay down his life for Jesus.
Peter. In that moment, he was not the rock on which Jesus would build His church. In that moment, he saw himself as he was: a weak, sinful man who could not give Jesus the fullness of love that He wanted and deserved.
Sitting there listening to Fr. Jegar, I heard this gospel story as though for the first time. He said that when Jesus asked Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” he asked in words that meant love as a friend. As Father said, “Jesus lowered the bar,” wanting Peter’s love but knowing the man’s limitations and meeting him where he was so that He could lead him deeper into that love. Tradition and history tell us that Peter indeed laid down his life for Jesus, martyred by crucifixion, and that he always recognized his own weakness, asking to be crucified head-down because he was unworthy to die in the same position as Jesus had.
Father Jegar brought the homily to a close, applying the lessons of this gospel story to our own lives, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
We love to think about Jesus loving us tenderly, yet I think we do not stop to consider what that really means. Jesus is the Word by which all creation was made, and He loves us as His own creation – not because we are perfect, but because we are His creation. He loves us in our weakness and sinfulness. He lowers the bar for us – yes, He does. Rather than requiring our perfection, He keeps offering us a way back to Him through the Sacraments.
He keeps loving us in His “agape” way of loving, even though we are barely capable of the kind of “friendship” love that Peter expressed. And sometimes our own pride gets in the way of letting ourselves be loved this way. We want to be loved for our good qualities, the way we expect to be loved by other people. We aren’t ready to be loved despite our lack of such qualities. We aren’t ready to be loved so deeply and absolutely in our state of utter imperfection that we have no choice but to respond by reaching for something better in ourselves.
Now, there is a humbling thought if I have ever entertained one.
Am I willing to be loved by Jesus the way He loves me, deeply and utterly and absolutely, and to be responsive to His call to be open to loving Him more and more completely?
This is the question that these recent weeks of spiritual discontent have been leading me to. It took a visit to a tiny chapel in a little town some distance from home, and a homily from a priest I’d never met before, to bring me to this question.
And I need to answer the question, because if I am truly open to being loved by Jesus in this way, then His grace, carried by His Holy Spirit, can find its way in. I think it’s not that God’s grace is unable to find its way in when we are stubbornly locked into our own limited way of loving; rather, it’s that God finds ways to soften us up for it. That’s what all the tears and fears and stubbornness of these past weeks have been about.
I’ve prayed for humility. At first, I prayed boldly without knowing what I was asking for. When God began to answer my prayer, it was kind of a shock, and I think I retreated without realizing what I was doing. He went to work on softening me up, and I began to understand better what I’m asking for when I pray for humility. More importantly, I am beginning to see a greater willingness in myself to accept the humility that God wants me to know.
I won’t claim that I felt the earth shift beneath my feet, exactly, with these realizations. But there is no question that the earth feels just a little different under my feet today, and there’s a peace and a calm in my soul that was missing for awhile. Please, Lord, please, let me keep listening, and keep me strong enough to keep praying for humility.
Because I can live with that.
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