Another great guest post by the Diocese of Burlington’s Matthew Rensch:
“Let us give thanks to God our Father,
for having made you worthy,
to share the lot of the saints in light.”
In a previous essay, I advanced the idea that being constituted as good and approved as such formed the decisive joy of heaven. Heaven’s joy consists in this almost unimaginable possibility that God welcomes us, not with condescending pity, but with full satisfaction. I suggested that an exemplary image might be that of the intimate face-to-face encounter between lovers, in which the beloved receives the approval of her lover, knowing full well that this approval is no inclusivistic and flavorless condescension, but meaningful blessing. This proposal almost immediately prompts the concern that pride or grounds for boasting must be lurking very close. If we take glory in this divine praise, the objection goes, surely we are doing nothing other than boasting in ourselves, when the real glory belongs to God. On the contrary, however, reception of approval requires humility; and it is the proud man who is incapable of receiving praise.
In Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, there lies an inconspicuous tomb on the right side of the altar. It is dedicated to decus Bernini, who lies there humiliter. It is the tomb, that is, of the decorated or honorable Bernini, resting there humbly. The literal reference is evidently to the simple tombstone for the great Bernini, but also suggests that the inscribers were pleased to imply a happy alliance between glory and humility. This confluence of glory, worthiness and greatness on the one hand with humility and humble reception on the other hints at a close connection between the two. Another intriguing confluence is the opening of the Mary’s Magnificat, in which she is not shy about proclaiming her own greatness. “The Lord has done great things for me” she sings, “all generations will call me blessed.” Even as she confidently affirms her own greatness and worthiness, she simultaneously exclaims that God has “looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Again we find this strange coincident expression of worthiness together with humility. Perhaps those joking words, “I have many virtues, including humility,” is not a joke but a real possibility. Evidently, Mary thinks that she is humble, and she is. The angel has declared her full of grace and in God’s favor. The angel has declared Mary’s greatness, that God likes her. And nevertheless Mary’s gracious song of thanksgiving does not exclude her humility. What Bernini’s tomb intimates and Mary’s Magnificat proclaim is that greatness and glory, even the self-awareness of one’s own greatness, does not exclude humility.
We can go even further, however. So far, we have proposed that the reception of praise does not undo humility. It is also true that the reception of praise encourages humility. This was most strikingly illustrated by an experience of a friend of mine, who participated in a mission trip. At the end of the trip, all the missionaries took part in the traditional closing exercise, which I’ll call the “circle of affirmation.” The rules are that all the missionaries sit in a circle, with the one who is “it” in the middle. Those around the circle take turns complimenting the one who is “it.” My friend, in this experience, was very touched by a fellow missionary’s compliment, who described my friend as a particularly motherly figure. In the end, my friend recounted to me that the entire experience was very . . . humbling. Imagine! Contrary to all expectations, the experience of receiving praise brought an impulse towards humility, not pride. Furthermore, the root of the humbling effect flowed exactly from the reception of the praise. That is, the humbling came not from the belief that the praise was misplaced or mistaken, nor from the downplaying of its meaning, but rather sprung from the reception of the affirmation as true.
Our last consideration will be that it is precisely humility that allows one to receive the approval of another. It is a prerequisite to receive praise. We’ll approach this from the corresponding truth that pride refuses praise. Another friend of mine gave a series of talks. After a particular one, a woman approached him and thanked him for his talk. He brushed it aside, attributing the value of the talk to God, comparing it to the more impressive talks of others, etc. Afterwards, my friend realized that his inability to accept the praise of this woman stemmed not from humility but from something hard in his heart. His realization was sparked by the woman telling him, “now you listen to me: I’m giving you a compliment. I’m going to tell you that I liked your talk, I’m going to tell you why I thought your talk was good, and when I’m finished you’re going to say thank-you.” The woman realized as well that the rejection of her praise was not an act of virtue, but of vice. It was an act propelled by a certain loftiness that disregarded the woman’s opinion. He could not humble himself to accept her praise.
With this example I am proposing that the reception of praise requires humility. Indeed, the reception of praise is itself an act of humility. Why is this? It seems to me that the one who receives the compliment, who, therefore, must express gratitude and thanks to the other, explicitly identifies himself as the recipient in the exchange. His act includes the “admission” that he is receiving something from another that he did not have from my own resources. He acknowledges his self-insufficiency. His reception negates his self-sufficiency (which is what pride claims to possess) and allows the other to bestow upon him something otherwise inaccessible.
This entire dynamic of goodness, approval, and reception of praise lies at the heart of our relationship with God. For in heaven, as I argued in the previous installment, God showers us with praise. “Well done, my good and faithful servants” (Mt 25:23). “Come, O blessed of my Father” (Mt 25:34). In this heavenly experience, the blessed responds with gratitude. The saved creature graciously receives the divine accolade, expressing thanks. The humility of creature permits thanksgiving, and in giving thanks the creature reaffirms its humility. C. S. Lewis notes:
Gratitude is the most creaturely of acts. The gracious reception of the Creator’s praise acknowledges the creator as bestowing something that the creature does not have.
It is humility that allows the creature to be a creature, to joyously admit its inferior position, and thereby permits the graciously reception of the Creator’s praise. The expression of gratitude in nothing less than the thrilling act of humble admission of one’s creatureliness, of one’s existential smallness, and at the same time the radiant acceptance of the Creator’s compliment. When the Creator praises, the created soul leaps for joy, thereby expressing both its gratitude and its creatureliness ever anew.
Receiving a compliment may be the most profound occasion we have today to be great and humble, gratefully creaturely, joyfully gracious.