As Lent continues to move along, the words that kicked off the season for penitent Catholics everywhere are still ringing in my ears – “You are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When cruciform ashes were placed atop our foreheads we were informed about what we really are. God took the dust of the earth and formed man with His hands. Grace built upon nature. But, for all the complex configurations that make up our bodies, we are dust. And, for all the high titles and puffed up reputations we like to manage for ourselves, we, again, are but dust. If you take together all of the specks of dust that we collectively are we would not even come close to the number of the grains of sand on the beaches of the earth.
Yet God bestowed upon this dust His everlasting Image, and He performed for us two most important acts. The epistle for this past second Sunday of Lent informs us: “He saved us and called us to a holy life” (2 Timothy 1:9) The beasts of the earth brought forth by the utterance of His Word do not have such a privilege visited by God upon them, nor even did His Angels received the gift of salvation. God did these two things precisely by becoming “dust” and entering into the dank and musty life of a world unkempt in sin. In Jesus He lived an earthly existence voluntarily bound by suffering and death, but by dying He destroyed both from the inside. This, the Incarnation and fully human life of Our Divine Lord, was the Great Humbling of God. And it was through this humility that God “brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9). As Catholics of His Church who seek to participate in the Divine Life of God, let me ask, doesn’t Lent call us to do the same thing? – to strip ourselves down (in our case, of every human praiseworthiness and attachment to sin) and live a life and death that is ultimately flourishing to the light of the Gospel? In this radical humility there is radical mission, and vise-versa. However, how does the ordinary Catholic begin to accomplish a radical humility in daily life, especially for Lent? Let me suggest to you a wonderful and worthy devotion to try this penitential season – the Litany of Humility.
A litany is a form of prayer that has, as it’s central structural component, one or more repeating parts (often call-and-responsive in nature) with the purpose of inspiring deep meditation in the believer of specific aspects of faith. This form of devotion is often used in public liturgical worship and in some private prayers. An example would be the Litany of the Saints sung at Easter or an ordination, which has the faithful repeat “pray for us” after an invocation of a Saints name, or the “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us” of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. It is one of my favorite forms of prayer because I have received, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, much deeper insight into my faith and the state of my soul. The repeated parts allow for better meditation because it helps to minimize distractions during prayer. The Litany of Humility has been commonly attributed to Servant of God Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930), who served the Holy See as Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope Saint Pius X from 1903 to 1914. I am unaware of when and how it first came about as a popular devotion for Catholics, but according its Wikipedia page, an Opus Dei priest, Fr. Charles Belmonte, who was inspired by the writings of the great cardinal, included it in a collection of prayers titled “Handbook of Prayers” in 1986. This time of penitence and sacrifice makes the Litany of Humility and ideal devotion for Catholics seeking to clean house and strip their souls of every thing that keeps them from truly loving God and neighbor even down to smallest level of imperfections. I have been using this devotion for over a year, and it has helped me target all those little actions and thoughts each day that I normally would miss that stunted my soul while trying to develop virtues and love others better. It has definitely given me fuel for confession.
Throughout the remainder of this article I will give a small commentary on the Litany of Humility. The Litany can be divided into three parts. Part I (From the desire of . . . Deliver me Jesus) deals with the desire of the human heart for praise and respect in eyes of others. Part II (From the fear of . . . Deliver me Jesus) tackles fears of not receive the same human praise and respect, which was desired in the first part. Finally, while Parts I and II empty out the soul, Part III (That others . . . Jesus grant me the grace to desire it) asks Our Lord to refill it with His grace, which helps it to desire to see others receive the things voluntarily given up through the previous two parts, so that the only desire is for God. There are tons of articles that can be written on the Litany and its aspect. For this post I will choose only a few lessons I have gained for each part. The goal is not to fully dissect this devotion. I will undoubtedly miss both details of the prayer that other have talked about before and details that speak out to you. My goals are only to introduce (or re-introduce) the reader to this wonderful devotion, inspire a love for it, and provide a foundation for understanding it. The following is based on a year’s experience of praying it.
The Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
“O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.”
Commentary: Appropriately, the prayer starts off with a call to Jesus Who is the Model of All Humility, for Jesus is the Incarnation of God Himself in the flesh. If there is anybody that could boast about internal greatness, it is the all-good and perfect God who made heaven and earth, yet He humbled Himself and became man out of love for us that He might save us. Additionally Jesus, being God, could have done anything He wanted in His freedom. There are plenty of instances in the Gospel where Jesus could have manifested His power for His own glory and bring His persecutors to their knees. Instead, He waited thirty years just to begin His ministry, and when He did He only sought to accomplish the Father’s will not His own. The recognition of all these things about God in Jesus and the reality of our own sinfulness should floor us and send us begging for Our Lord to hear us despite our weaknesses. This small introductory praise-then-petition to God sets the tone we should have for prayer in general. For, it is not “God grant peace among men so that You will be glorified in the highest.” Rather, it is first “Glory to God in the highest,” then once that is done, then “on earth peace to people of good will.” (Gotta give props to Bishop Robert Barron on that point from one of his videos I saw in the past.)
Part I: “From the desire of being (esteemed, loved, extolled, etc.), Deliver me, Jesus.”
Commentary: I will express only two major insights that I have gained from this part that I feel are incredibly important to living the Christian life and to understanding how little bits of uncharitableness could be sneaked in through our actions. 1) The desire for these forms of human praise could lead to fostering resentment and lack of charity towards others, especially when others receive them and you don’t. 2) The desire for these forms of human praise could turn the believer inward into himself/herself and make himself/herself into the center of attention depriving God of due praise and depriving others of their need of being led to the Lord through them.
1) Fostering resentment and lack of charity
Now, is the mere instance of receiving praise and esteem from others an occasion of sin? No. Is the acknowledgement that people might give you honor and laude you for doing a great job at something (like authentically living the Gospel) a situation for sin? No. It may not even be a sin in itself to have a hope that specific people might love, honor, or respect you, such as our family members and friends, especially when you perform good acts. Rather the first part of this prayer serves as a warning to the believer of an inordinate desire for human praise, “inordinate” in the sense that the desire for human praise runs in excess and disorders the person from his or her proper duty to render unto God due praise and love neighbor for the sake of God. A danger that can arise in desiring that others have a high esteem of you lies in the temptation to develop within oneself resentment towards others for not giving you the praise, honor, or preferential treatment “due” to you, especially after the preforming of good actions. This is a disordered mindset in the moral life for at least two reasons. First, it breaks the First Commandment by assuming that created beings owe you praise and that their withholding it from you is an injustice when God is the only One that is truly owed praise. As Catholic teaching informs us, it is a sin to refuse to praise the True God because the offender is refusing to give what belongs to Him, thus it is an injustice committed against Him. In this attitude, the believer tries to usurp God of His rightful place as the recipient of human praise. Second, it can also lead the believer to breaking the Fifth Commandment. We know from the Gospel that Jesus extends the Fifth Commandment to include even being resentfully angry against others (Matthew 5:21-26) in a radical call for us to live a good moral life pleasing to God through moral actions, such as fulfilling the Second Greatest Commandment given by Christ to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). If you have an inordinate desire for people to praise you and they fail to do so, that could lead you resent them and fail to show charity towards neighbor.
Additionally, what I have learned from the Litany of Humility, however, is that while the above is true, it doesn’t take you doing great things and people failing to acknowledge you for doing a great job in order to see this truth demonstrated. Most of us do ordinary things well everyday that we don’t perceive as “great”, and we usually don’t expect people to praise us for it. But, as we know, sometimes the failure of other to acknowledge you for the countless little things you do each day that help keep the ship afloat can build up in you resentment towards the ones you encounter each day. The devil does not have to tempt you with great things all the time in order to make you fall. Just as God often works in the smallest and meekest of ways for our good, the evil one can work in those very same details for our destruction in a diabolic mimicking of divine acts.
The Litany has helped me battle a number of personal imperfections within myself in regards to lack of humility (some of those battles are still ongoing). Through the Litany, the Holy Spirit begins to show you areas of life that needs conversion to humility and sanctification.
2) – Turn the believer into the center of attention depriving God of due praise and depriving others of their need of being led to the Lord.
Another effect that an inordinate desire for human praise can be seen when we extrapolate the condemnation of corrupt people given in Philippians 3:19 to include areas of the spiritual life. In this verse St. Paul warns about the “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and in judging that “their god is their stomach” he magnifies the self-serving nature of those who are opposed to the Gospel. Further insight is given as St. Paul goes on to say that the human glory that they have is actually “their shame,” and that they are fixed on “earthly things.” Paul’s words can provide a window to view the souls of those who have lost their sense for humility and temperance. These souls seek turn in on themselves in a selfishness and lack of concern for others. They lack the desire for self-sacrifice for the sake of God and the salvation of souls, and they desire instead to lead people to themselves so that they might receive the praise of others. Their soul becomes a pit, and everything and everyone lead to it gets consumed and lost in order to feed their disordered appetites for vainglory. The buck stops with them when it should stop at God. If you want people to praise you, then God will not be praised. If you desire to be glorified among men, then God will not be glorified among those He has created. This is a deadly problem for both you and others, because no one involved will be able to receive the God we all need. The only purpose of using any gifts of self-attraction is to lead those who come to you to God, for people ultimately need God, not you. As the Baltimore Catechism informs us on the purpose of life and the end (destiny) of man, we exist to love God and to serve Him in this life so as to be happy with Him in the next.
Part II: “From the fear of being (humiliated, despised, suffering rebukes, etc.), Deliver me, Jesus.”
Commentary: For as long I can remember praying this Litany, there has always been one dominant insight that comes across the mind every time I reach this part of the prayer. Informed by the first part of the Litany, I know that we all often desire to be thought of well by others. We all would like every now and then for people to give us our props and praise us for our good works and talents. We all want to be liked or approved by others in some small way, and it is because of this very desire that we seek to avoid being disliked, humiliated, or forgotten by those in the world. I know I harbor certain desires to be liked and remembered well by others after I am gone, so, I join the rest of us when I say “we.” However, can we say the same of the Saints who have gone before us? Sure, before and during their encounter with Jesus, the some of Apostles probably wanted to be thought of highly by others. The little fight between the sons of Zebedee (James and John) about who would sit at Our Lord’s right hand in the Gospel (Mark 10:35-37 and Matthew 20:20-21) could clue us in on a possible desire to receive some recognition of being associated with Jesus. However, after they were sent out into the world to spread the Gospel when Jesus ascended into heaven, what type of recognition did they receive? They got the same “royal treatment” Our Lord. They were “humiliated,” “despised,” “rebuk[ed],” and ultimately were put to death. What about the martyrs and the Saints throughout the centuries that came after them? After they were “calumniated” and “forgotten [by the world]” many of them suffered the same fate. And what about us Christians today? After all these years and an entrance into a “tolerant” and “inclusive” present age are we finally safe from the fate the Saints knew? Or, rather are we “ridiculed,” “wronged,” and “suspected?” The point is that we as humans, who desired to be “liked,” typically seek to avoid these negative responses and for others to develop these attitudes towards us as Christians when the real Jesus and the authentic living and spreading of the Gospel have not received such a great reception. Now, I am not saying we should give others something they should despise us for in terms of unchristian-like conduct. Rather, we should not carry within us a spirit of fear that we might not be liked very much for spreading the Gospel because if we have that fear, we might never live or spread the Message of Christ to a world that desperately needs it. Fear will stunt your growth as a Catholic Christian and in the living out of the vocation God has called you to live for the sake of the salvation of souls. Fear of mistreatment, just like the desire for the best treatment, will have the buck stopping at you again when it should stop at God. Your fear will stop God from being Feared.
When prayed faithfully, parts I and II, as stated before, will lead to the emptying out of the soul of the two biggest things that clutter it up and keep the believer from being totally attached to God, desire and fear of earthly things. Fleshly desires choke out the soul like the thorns of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:7), and fears of not preserving the things of this world keep it from completing the painful work of rising out from that which suffocates it. In our spiritual lives, we should all strive to empty out ourselves of everything thing keeps us away from loving God and loving others for their salvation, and ask Him to replenish our souls with nothing but His Grace to help build up within us lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity so that we might become worthy of the promises of Christ. From every thing that is opposite to these noble things, let us ask Jesus to deliver us!
Part III: “That others may be (loved, esteemed, etc. more than I), Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.”
Commentary: Now we are ready. We have been emptied out. We have given up our “claims” to fame among men. Let others have them. Let others receive them. We leave them up for the taking. We do not desire them any longer. We have also given up all our fears that they may no longer keep us from becoming the mocked and ridiculed “fools for Christ” we should properly be (1 Corinthians 4:10). It was not easy to let things go because we often want to be lauded, and we hate to be afraid. Now, we come to the last part of the prayer, which explicitly requests that others be preferred in the world over us. If any praise, recognition, or awards do come our way, we will accept them humbly, but we will not pine for them insistently because we know earthly honors will not ultimately fulfill us. However, though it is easy to imagine this being a relinquishing of earthly praise and honors, this part could also apply to the spiritual life as the prayer goes on to request that others become holier provided the believer only becomes as holy as God desires them to be in this life and the next. For we know that some Saints have achieved greater levels of holiness than others while on earth and rank more highly in heaven. Think of the Blessed Mary being the Mother of God and St. Joseph being her earthly spouse and the foster father of the Lord Himself vs. the other noble Saints; obliviously these two would be the two most holy persons in heaven besides the Trinity of course because of their close relationship and work for Jesus in the Divine Plan. In addition, think of St. John the Baptist being the greatest of all the prophet-saints because he was the Forerunner to Our Lord, the Messiah. However, even with these ranks of holiness, there is neither fighting nor envy in heaven because all received precisely the same prize, the Beatific Vision, God Himself Who satisfies every desire, hope, and existence perfectly. This is the model we all have to keep in mind when we come across this part of the Litany, which end the whole prayer. Finally, I have found in praying this devotion that it is when we begin to let go our preoccupations with wanting to be liked (while not condemning honors if we receive them) and working to overcome fears for the sake of the Gospel that we become more free because we begin the next step to attaching ourselves to the God Who is Freedom itself.