Beloved: Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: “God opposes the proud, / but bestows favor on the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:5-7
Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”
Today is the Feast of St. Mark. In the excerpt on St. Mark from his book Blessed Among Us that introduces the feast in Give Us This Day, Robert Ellsburg begins with the question, “Who was St. Mark?” The question reminded me of the startling paradox of what we, somewhat glibly, call history. Mark has had a singularly profound influence on the world for the past two thousand years, and yet, we don’t really know who he was. This reality counters the impulse of a very basic desire that we all have, one that greatly informs our sense of history. We all, someplace within, desire to be remembered. I suspect there are very few of us who don’t harbor a deep desire that our name be known and meaningful to at least some persons after our deaths. Although Mark’s name is known, it is impossible to connect it with the person who had to share something of that same desire. Yet, the actual person who was identified by this name is shrouded in mystery. His work, his contributions remain as a continuing and key formative influence in the life of untold numbers of persons, but whoever he actually was, he is long since forgotten.
When I was a young man, I became aware of the fact that far too often, as I saw it, I was performing when I did my work rather than simply doing it. When acting, my attention and focus was divided between doing what was to be done and checking around to see how others were perceiving my efforts. I wanted to do the work well, but I also wanted it to be valued and appreciated. I wanted “credit” for the work. I craved affirmation and appreciation. I wanted others to “remember” that it was I who had done this work or accomplished this task. In that sense, I wanted the work to be mine.
Adrian van Kaam would remind us that the root of the word person means “to sound through.” The conflict I experienced, and continue to experience, concerns who or what is to sound through my work. I’ve come to learn that the degree to which I am performing, for my own sake, is the measure of my pride. To the degree that my “getting credit” in the eyes of others is my motivation, to that degree I am failing to be the person I am called to be. I am rather investing my energy in the creation of an identity, supported by others, that is imaginary and illusory. The more my work is “pure act,” the more that the Lord who is truly my life is being manifested uniquely in my work. The work I am truly given to do is not something for which I can claim credit, because it is God’s work.
As 1 Peter tells us, we are to humble ourselves so that God may be exalted in us and so exalt us “in due time.” How does ordinary life form us in this humility? One way, clearly, is by failure. In the third grade I had a teacher who was one of the great loves of my life. Her name was Lydia Raymond, and she had taught at our neighborhood school for decades. I entered the third grade not long after my grandmother had died, and, in retrospect, I can say that Miss Raymond had become my surrogate grandmother. She would have me go to the corner store at lunch time to buy her cottage cheese for lunch. I would remain after school to clean the chalk boards and the erasers. To please her meant everything to me.
At one point she had each of us individually come to her to recite our multiplication tables. When it was my turn, she was a bit frustrated because many of us had not spent the time necessary to know them throughly. So, as I sat down she said, “This will be a pleasure to finally hear these done well.” The truth was that I too had not studied well enough to know them flawlessly. So I stumbled through. I was embarrassed, to be sure, but I was also ashamed and fearful that in disappointing her I had lost this most important of relationships. I was terrified of what it meant that she now saw me as I was, and not how I felt she needed to in order to like me and care about me.
At age 7, although I certainly experienced this event’s significance as my detailed memory indicates, I was unable to reflect on how meaningful it truly was. This moment and my ongoing experience of it was teaching me something about the difference between who I really am and who I think I ought to be, who I want the world to see. The scriptures call us to humility because it is only in humility that we can begin to live in the truth. For me, there may be no greater experience of our fallenness than our “normal schizophrenia,” that is our felt need to be other than we are and to actually promote our false selves.
By now it is common knowledge that former FBI director James Comey told David Remnick in an interview that President Trump “has an emptiness inside of him, and a hunger for affirmation, that I’ve never seen in an adult. It’s all, ‘What will fill this hole?’” It is fair to say that we all have this emptiness to varying degrees. At age 7 and after the death of my grandmother, my need for Miss Raymond’s attention and love was insatiable. Van Kaam teaches that there is a “celibate component” to each and every human life. That is, at our depth, we desire an affirmation and an intimacy that only God can fill. Humility is the willingness to face and live with that longing and emptiness, to refuse to make believe that we can fill it by means of our own efforts.
St. Mark, whoever he was, continues to live on in his work. Although we have no idea of who this particular person actually was, we continue to know him and to be formed by his influence through his work. Perhaps our incessant and unavoidable longing to be remembered is really an echo of our call to do the work that it is ours to do. Perhaps we mistakenly think that what we really need and want is to be recognized by getting credit and “affirmation” for our work. Yet, no matter how hard we try, the identity we have created will be forgotten quite shortly after we die. I no longer well remember what Miss Raymond or, for that matter my grandparents and parents and even peers who have died, look like. Yet, their life work continues to live in me.
To be the persons we are meant to be means to become transparent, so that God’s continual work of creation out of love may be done through us. To be a person in the fullest sense is for God’s work and work to sound through each of us in a unique way. One way we know we are doing what is truly the work we are called to do, that we live to do, is when we do it in self-forgetfulness. When we act and work in this way, we are also unmindful of the outcome of our efforts, their “success” or “failure.” If we are a servant of a greater work, then its posterity lies not in our hands. What we are serving is far greater and more mysterious than we can ever understand. It is in action carried out in such awareness that we become “at one.”
“As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.” (Psalm 123:2) The psalm describes that moment when we no longer work with divided attention, one eye on the task and one on the crowd. Rather, we look only to the one whose work we are, by grace and love, given to do.
Just as all those that followed it, my Profession retreat was one of great aridity. God showed me clearly, however, without my perceiving it, the way to please Him and to practice the most sublime virtues. I have frequently noticed that Jesus doesn’t want me to lay up provisions; He nourishes me at each moment with a totally new food; I find it within me without my knowing how it is there. I believe it is Jesus Himself hidden in the depths of my poor little heart: He is giving me the grace of acting within me, making me think of all He desires me to do at the present moment.
St. Thérèse of LIsieux, The Story of a Soul, Chapter VIII