The themes of pride and humility pop up in my life frequently. It seems to me that this is one the major things I’m supposed to work out in my life here on earth. Once more, I come face to face with these topics this week. I have been re-reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation1, thinking about and contemplating Chapter 7.
Talking about Union and Division in this chapter, Thomas Merton is weaving in the themes of pride and humility. He spends a good deal of time in this chapter talking about how man chooses to do things on his own and not work with others as he senses competition with others, and compares himself with others to see if he is better or not.
As I contemplate this chapter, I find myself in Galilee following Jesus and his teachings. He has gone up to the mountain sides and has had the sermon of the mount in Matthew 5. In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about giving to the needy, praying the Our Father, fasting and appearances, and not to have anxiety about clothing and food. In Matthew 7, he talks about not judging others, the narrow gate, true and false prophets and disciples. And then Jesus comes down from the mountain side and heads back into Capernaum (Matthew 8)
Capernaum was a fishing village established during the time of the Hasmoneans, located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Hasmoneans were a dynasty of Jewish kings that fought to liberate Judea from Seleucid rule and created an independent state. The family’s name was apparently derived from an unknown ancestor named Ḥashmonay. Capernaum had a population of about 15002. We now come to the passage on Matthew 8:5 where Jesus heals the centurion’s servant.
The Faith of the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13)3
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
In the Roman world, the centurion had a very important position. He was an officer in the Roman army whose experience and valor were crucial in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring that the Roman’s empire military successes continued over time. A centurion commanded a unit of around 100 soldiers but was also responsible for administrative duties, such as assigning duties and giving out punishments. Centurions had the ability to advance in administrative responsibilities, but the name centurion would be remembered for the veteran who led by the courageous example on the battlefield.4
In the words of Polybius5 (a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, noted for his work The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC and wrote on the rise of Rome to prominence), “the centurion must not be a venturesome seeker after danger but as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over-anxious to rush into fight, but when hard-pressed, they must be ready to hold their ground, and die at their posts.”
With such a prominence in the Roman world, the story is about this very important person being humble before Jesus. This sits in contrast to the points that Thomas Merton makes in his chapter: man not wanting to be in union with other men finds himself in a state of division, wanting to be separate and distinct. Afraid to be challenged by others and be in a world that is forever becoming more competitive, man wants to go at it alone. This division is fueled by spiritual pride, and “is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. When a proud man thinks he is humble, his case is hopeless.”
So Thomas Merton asks us to set our pride aside, come together in union with other people which will become a means for finding ourselves: “I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God, but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.”
Coming together as children of God, acknowledging that we are one with Jesus and accepting in the bottom of our heart that we are made for each other, helps us discover ourselves as we are made of the same fabric: made from the Spirit of God. Keeping this faith helps bind us together.
As Pope Benedict XVI explains in Benedictus, Day by Day6: “… God is no longer the distant and indeterminate God to whom no bridge will reach, he is the God at hand. The body of the Son is the bridge for our souls. Through him, each single person’s relationship with God has been blended together in his one relationship with God so that turning one’s gaze toward God is no longer a matter of turning one’s gaze away from others and from the world but in uniting of our gaze and of our being in the single gaze and of the one being of the Son … [the Kingdom of God] will be complete when the son hands to the father his kingdom, that is, in-gathered humanity and the creation that is carried with them. That is why the purely private existence isolated self no longer exists but all that is mine is yours.”
As I celebrate Advent and move closer to Christmas Day, I pray for our humanity that we can set pride aside, find humility in the bottom of our hearts and come together as brothers and sisters, children of God and sharers of the one and same Holy Spirit!