Someone asked me for the text of a sermon that I preached last Sunday in Heiligenkreuz. So here it is reconstructed and translated from notes and memory.
“When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)
Reverend Fathers, Venerable Brothers, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The desire for honor, recognition, praise, good report, approval is rooted deep in our humanity. So is the fear of shame, exposure, and blame. Nor is this entirely a bad thing. There can be an innocent joy in being praised. C.S. Lewis notes that good children rejoice with innocent pleasure in the praise of their parents. And not just children even brute beasts–loyal dogs and horses–rejoice in the praise of their masters. There is something beautiful and graceful in this joy. It is, Lewis says, the specific joy of the inferior, “the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”
The great Lewis scholar Thomas Howard gives the following example. In a documentary on the day-to-day workings of Windsor Castle, the old servant in charge of hoisting the royal standard was interviewed. There are hundreds of servants at Windsor so of course the Queen cannot know all of them, but this old man said, with evident joy, “She knows who I am.”
There is a graceful, a beautiful joy in praise, but there is also a warped, perverse, sinful craving for praise. Man was originally clothed in glory and grace, but through sin he was stripped naked. Poor and exposed, man tries to cloth himself in something to forget his nakedness and misery. St. Bernard says of those on the first step of pride–curiosity–that not being able to stand the knowledge of themselves they turn outward. But soon the distractions of curiosity are not enough and they seek the praise of others to hide their shame. They seek a lie with which to deceive themselves.
What a miserable life vainglory gives those enslaved to it. The vainglorious despise the others and consider their own judgement better except with regard to themselves; when they are praised they suddenly find the judgement of others trustworthy. The vainglorious Pharisees in the Gospel cannot enjoy the banquet since they are so occupied with their own honor. The vainglorious learn no truth in conversation since they are only concerned with saying something clever and appearing brilliant.
St. Bernard describes how this leads to higher steps of pride. The eighth step is particularly insufferable and ubiquitous–even in the monastery. Those on the eighth step are so caught in the lie that they cannot abide any legitimate criticism, anything which breaks the illusion, and so they violently defend themselves against all blame: “A man either says ‘I did it not’ or if he did it “I acted rightly in so doing’, or if he acted wrongly ‘not to a serious extent,’ or, if he was seriously wrong, [that worst and most insufferable of all excuses:] “I meant well”. (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae XVII)
We have to stop this, brothers. If we don’t free ourselves from the lie, we will be exposed when it really matters: at the Judgement of God. All our nightmares of being embarrassed, found out, seen through; of stuttering and forgetting our lines on stage; of failing our exams; the panic, the burning shame–they will all be fulfilled in the most horrible way. “Our only response could be sheer spleen, screaming, and mockery… infinite torture… hatred, irrationality, and burning.” This is hell: to be exposed for all eternity before the undeceivable eyes of all the justified of every nation, the hosts of angels, and our Creator Himself. “And then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”
The only means of escaping this fate is humility: giving up the lie, admitting our smallness, poverty, and sinfulness. “Humility,” St. Bernard writes, “is the virtue which enables a man to see himself as he truly is, and thereby to discover his worthlessness.”
But humility need not be bitter humiliation. It can be sweet. When we praise God, when we are filled with wonder and reverence before His glory, then we desire to confess our smallness before Him. To me the most beautiful thing about the monastic Liturgy of the Hours is the Gloria Patri: after every Psalm we step out of our stalls and bow low in reverence and awe before the majesty of the Most Blessed Trinity. What joy!
This is the joy that todays epistle imparts:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12:18-24)
Our confrère Pater Robert Abeynaike has demonstrated that this passage refers to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Lord becomes really, truly, substantially present on the altar, but He does not cease to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father; no, the whole heavenly court becomes present with Him. Untold saints kneeling before Him, hosts of angels veiling their faces before His Glory, they are with Him here. And we enter into this mystery and bend our knees, and adore, and wonder, and are filled with joy and humility.
But if we are humble then our Lord promises to crown our humility with another reward: with praise. “When your host comes he [will] say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all…” Amen.