I never tire of saying that humility does not mean humiliation, although sometimes it can look that way. Well, even if it does look that way, isn’t it true that appearance can be deceiving? Let’s see. Look at the following descriptions of religious acts that for many people are examples of humility. What do you feel when you read them?
My Father’s Mother came from Poland. From time to time, she would go to her Polish Catholic Church, a Church with about forty stone steps leading to the front door, and crawl up the steps on her knees, praying at each step until she reached the doors. Then she would get up and enter the Church for a deep experience of prayer. She would accomplish such a feat even in her seventies.
At another time I was in Poland myself, visiting the Sacred Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. At the site of the actual, famous painting of Our Lady, traditionally painted by Saint Luke, I witnessed an elderly woman crawling around the chapel on her own knees where the picture hangs, crying and praying as she went.
On yet another occasion, I was in Fatima, Portugal. While there I witnessed again a young mother, with her two children holding both of her hands, one on each side, and crawl on her knees around the entire area which contains the main Fatima Basilica and the site of the first apparition of Our Lady to three children. It was here that Mary would talk to the children about the need of praying for other people, and how much Her Son was offended by the self-centeredness of the world. This area is roughly the size of our Church property combined with the adjoining area of where McDonalds is located.
At another time in Fatima, I witnessed once more a man lying prone on the ground, pulling himself by his fingers around the same chapel of the first apparition of Our Lady. The building structure alone is about the size of the McDonalds nearby to our Church. He was not pushing with his feet to help him to crawl better. He simply grabbed the ground in front of him and pulled.
Obviously, the readers of this letter will experience a range of feelings when reading these accounts, some positive and some negative. Some readers might be reminded of times past. I know that I do. In my own youth prior to Vatican II, the concept of looking for “feel good” experiences was not even considered. Suffering was a part of the Real World and one was invited, challenged actually, to grasp the reality of what suffering meant, and maybe of what life meant, much like the man dragging himself around a chapel by grasping the ground in front of him. The Church never said that a person had to perform such an action, grabbing the ground and pull oneself forward like that. But people were expected to grab the Real World, with its sufferings and joys combined, and pull oneself forward with God’s Grace to the next experience that life will present, whatever they may be.
For me the deepest spirituality, traditionally speaking, takes birth from learning to live with equanimity in both joyful and trying experiences. I learn to take the good as well as the bad in imitation of Christ, whose own life demonstrated such a balance. Going through tough times is painful, no doubt. But when such experiences are completed, and if one depended on God throughout, one feels cleansed, an experience that just cannot be described adequately.
I experienced something similar when I underwent a thirty-day Ignatian retreat in preparation to profess perpetual vows. I was only permitted to talk thirty minutes a day to my spiritual director, who guided me through the retreat. I had to be quiet for the rest of the time. I had to further meditate according to this method for five hours a day. It was painful in the beginning of this retreat. About half way through I felt somewhat better.
When I left the retreat after the thirty days I never felt better in my life. In accepting this new and initially painful reality, obviously different from my normal life, depending on God in prayer to show me His Will, I learned something of this balance. Afterward, I felt a much stronger connection to the spirituality of my grandmother. I understood why she did what she did. The “old” ways teach us still. No illusions here; just simple reality.
Blessings, Fr. Walter