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Striving after nothing

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled. And whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.”

Though perhaps we’d all agree that Jesus’ words from last Sunday’s Gospel are quite beautiful and noble, it is not at all obvious how they apply to a group — like us — of gifted, industrious, ambitious young people, lurking at the threshold of the world and ready to become its next generation of leaders. What does it mean to “not exalt ourselves”? If it means not loading up our lives and our résumés with achievements that will help us serve the world, we are all, perhaps, already out of luck. This is what, at least in part, we came here to do.

Thomas Jefferson famously took a pair of scissors to the four Gospels, then re-pasted them back together, leaving out all the parts that didn’t fit with his American project. Maybe these words of Jesus about “not exalting” ourselves, and several others like it — “Whoever wishes to be first must be last,” “Whoever wishes to gain life must lose it,” etc, etc — are best scissored from our personal Scriptures until some later time in our lives, when we are not so committed to grabbing life by the fistfuls.

But who wants to throw away the words of Jesus … besides Thomas Jefferson? Ok, we could come up with a disturbingly lengthy list. But what about us? Is there a way to live fully these years of acquisition and cultivation of knowledge, talents, relationships, achievements, networks … while still somehow acknowledging — indeed, somehow living — these words of Jesus that all true exaltation in life comes through self-emptying?

This weekend, I preached this Gospel to a group of elementary school children. Having much less to be exalted about than adults, I figured these words of Jesus would pretty much sail over their heads. I held a cup up in the air. “What’s this cup made out of?” I asked them. “Plastic” they yelled back in chorus. “Only half-right,” I replied. And they began craning their necks to see what else composed the cup. After a few seconds, I hoisted a pitcher of water and began pouring it into the cup, which, unbeknownst to the students, was filled to the brim with more plastic. Thus, to the suddenly shrieking delight of the students, the water splattered off the top of the cup and all over me. This showmanship got me a few laughs. It also guaranteed that a guy pouring water on himself on the altar would be the only thing the students remembered from my homily. But, interestingly, and unexpectedly, I now had the captivated look of every adult in the building. To my surprise, many of them weren’t even blinking, just staring at me, the cup, the spilled water. Immediately and intuitively, they understood the symbol, and only too well.

“So,” I asked, “what else is the cup made of?” The older students led the charge: “Space.” “Emptiness.” “The inside nothingness stuff!” said one future nihilist . And the adults — their lives filled with the great calls to parenting, earning, loving, striving, acquiring — all nodded in self-reflective agreement. What we are today, the enumeration of our current traits, gifts, possessions, never seems an adequate summary of who we are. Perhaps that is because, part of who we are … we are not, yet.

We are vessels, not résumés. Restless seekers, not insatiable graspers. We are mysteries waiting to unfold in the surprising joys and sorrows of life, not the predetermined projects of our society’s, or our parents’, or even our own plans for ourselves. So much of us is not yet.

We have so many gifts, so much we have achieved, with plenty more to come. But if there is no emptiness, no unformed space, no loneliness, no incompleteness, then … where does the water go? Whatever that water may be for you this semester — a challenging course, a mind-changing idea, an unexpected new friendship, openness to spiritual growth — it needs open space in between the ambitions and achievements of this semester.

It takes a certain attitude, or spirituality, to approach life with a continuous acknowledgment that we are not all put together yet. It is often called humility. This humility is not necessarily exclusive of worthy ambition and achievement. Plenty of saints had hefty résumés. But they also had humility — a deep-ingrained, and deeply accepted, self-knowledge of their incompleteness, their sinfulness, their utter need for God. It kept them thirsting. It kept them restless. Perhaps most importantly, it kept them hungering for God. They refused to identify the sum total of themselves with their accomplishments and possessions. Most saints’ first line of self-description would probably be, “A sinner in need of God’s mercy” or “A deeply flawed human being struggling to love.” This even while serving the world in heroic dimensions.

They understand the secret of humility. Perhaps even more than what we are, we are what we are not yet. The empty space is the room where God works. So, amid all our strivings after greatness this semester, Jesus’ words are more timely than ever: “It is the humble who will be exalted.”

 This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Bible Studies and ACE chaplain. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.