Frassati Reflection: The Humility of the Centurion

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
—Exodus 14:14

And Jesus went with them,
but when he was only a short distance from the house,
the centurion sent friends to tell him,
“Lord, do not trouble yourself,
for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.
Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you;
but say the word and let my servant be healed.”
—Luke 7:6–7

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Confession_of_the_Centurion_(La_Confession_du_Centurion)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Many of you have probably seen Christine Horner’s opinion piece that ran in the Huffington Post in July about this line of Luke’s Gospel, which we repeat at every Mass just before receiving the Eucharist. When we say these words, we declare ourselves unworthy to receive God and then invite Him in anyway, acknowledging that in His great mercy, He will heal us. Horner reacts strongly against this, saying: “Dialogue and constructs that perpetuate ‘I am not worthy’ are the root of all evil behavior.” In reading this line, she perceives it only as a guilt trip and an expression of self-hatred, not as a statement of humility.

Many Catholic writers have responded with beautiful commentary on the true meaning of this verse. Deborah Savage reflects on the value of true humility in a letter addressed to Horner:

The humility that the Catholic Christian seeks has absolutely nothing to do with the “self-denigration” you seem to think it requires. By definition, the starting place and foundation of the virtue of humility—which St. Augustine claimed was the quintessential Christian virtue—is the truth about myself. And the genuinely humble person understands herself to be, in the first instance, a creature, a person made in the image and likeness of God. Her dignity and her worth flow from this fact and not from any personal accomplishments or earthly achievement.

Humility is that virtue that permits her to acknowledge both her gifts and her weaknesses, secure in the knowledge that she is the recipient of the gift of life and that, in fact, all is gift. Though all children begin as little self-centered egoists, as she matures, the child can be taught—or will eventually learn on her own—that her fundamental posture toward this generosity must be a profound gratitude.

And this is the truly sad part about our situation. The cause of violence in our culture is not the call to admit my weakness, my uncertainties, my mistakes. The cause of violence in our culture is the refusal to accept the reality of sin and to recognize that, in that regard, we are all the same: in need of forgiveness and compassion. The cause of violence in our culture is our inability to see the humanity of another and to love them—to will their good—even if we think they might be flawed. You yourself point to the paradox at work in this exchange; it starts with a recognition of my own humanity and an acceptance of myself as I am, created by God, held in existence by God, redeemed and loved by him who is the source of life.

Thomas Clements writes on how we should focus on the fact that the Lord heals our unworthiness. We should not be insulted at the suggestion that we are unworthy; rather, we should acknowledge it as truth and rejoice in the fact that He redeems us anyway:

In our fallen human nature, we sin, turn from God and hurt our communion, which hurts our souls. In this way, we are unworthy, but God is quick to make us worthy through His grace. Our souls need healing from a God who never sins, is always Good. He revealed to us through St. James, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” and “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

And David Mills ponders what it really means to be unworthy:

Have the writer and other would-be Children of Eden never met a deeply good person, a holy person, much less a saint? Have they not felt unworthy in the presence of real goodness? Felt that here was someone you would feel it an undeserved honor to have in your home?

I suspect they have met but haven’t recognized genuine goodness, and if so they’ve inflicted on themselves a huge loss. It’s a gift, meeting people who are so good. The good man and woman is a beacon, is the light of an open door at the end of a dark hard journey. It’s a gift to feel unworthy in the presence of goodness, because that goodness comes from a God who wills us to become worthy and has provided the means at great cost to himself.

Without perceiving our own littleness, we cannot marvel at His greatness. True humility does both these things—we must keep our own egos in check, but we cannot stop there. Perhaps this is what Horner was trying to get us to avoid, a fixation on our unworthiness without looking upward to find its cure. True humility is not self-denigration or despair, it is not a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness. True humility sees that we are small in comparison to One much greater, Who will protect us and care for us. True humility sets aside all worry about our own faults and mistakes, knowing that He will cover us with His grace, no matter how many times we stumble. And this is only possible when we perceive our unworthiness and ask to be healed.

If we do not acknowledge our need for God’s mercy, we cannot receive it. If we think we are already worthy, then what is the point of inviting Him in? He does His greatest work in us when we kneel at His feet, embrace our dependence upon Him, and allow Him to use us as His instruments—not when we rely on our own plans, our own skills, our own cleverness; not when we fight tooth and nail for our own autonomy. He will let us fight, He will let us flounder until we fall again at His feet. And then, when we rest in Him, He will fight for us—we need only to be still.


Image: James Tissot, The Confession of the Centurion / PD-US


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