Director, La Salette Shrine
When is the last time you used the word “vainglory”? We all know what it means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it. You know, the people with bloated self-esteem, the people who are Presidents of their own fan clubs.
St. Paul says vainglory is to be avoided. But then he goes too far: “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” Isn’t that just the other extreme? Is it honest? Is it fair?
It may well be true that a humble attitude is better than an arrogant one. But surely St. Paul can’t be saying we should adopt a false attitude, putting ourselves down and beating ourselves up.
And yet, consider the following quotation: “I was at prayer one day when suddenly, without knowing how, I found myself, as I thought, plunged right into hell. I realized that it was the Lord's will that I should see the place which the devils had prepared for me there and which I had merited for my sins.”
These words are found in the autobiography of one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila. Elsewhere she says that the place prepared for her in hell was actually less horrible than she had really deserved.
What is going on here? It is an awareness that both of the sons in the parable represent all of us. We’ve all been there, promising to do something and not doing it, refusing to do something and then doing it after all; resolving to give up some old bad habit or adopt a new good one, and failing on both counts. Each of us is capable of the greatest holiness or the most abject evil. But both the first reading and the Gospel show there is no guarantee in the first case and no irremediable doom in the other.
St. Paul goes on to give Jesus as example: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” who “emptied himself” and “humbled himself.” That doesn’t mean Jesus had low self-esteem.
What is being asked is that we empty ourselves of self, not just of selfishness but of self-full-ness, of self-importance, and that we humble ourselves at least by acknowledging the equal worth of others.
The chief priests and elders, as we often see in the Gospels, were full of self-importance, so faithful to the observance of the Law that they felt no need for repentance, for humbling themselves before God, much less before others, as would have been the case if they had publicly presented themselves to John for baptism.
The bad news is: we can’t rest on our laurels, on any good we have done. The good news is: we aren’t doomed by our past sins. We simply have to recognize God’s work in our lives, understand that our salvation is his work, that the best we can do is accept the gift, and cooperate with God’s will in our own imperfect way.
One of God’s greatest gifts is that he makes his will known to us. Another is the grace that makes it possible for us to say yes. Another is that he is always ready to forgive us when we say no, and take us back when we return to him.
It’s all his work. It’s all his grace. Not just in you, not just in me, but in all of us. We have ample grounds for genuine humility.
Next time you look in the mirror, say to the person looking out at you, “You are the center of the universe.” If that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, it should. As I said at the beginning: we all know what vainglory means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it.