True greatness

Saturday of the 14th week of Matthew

In today’s Gospel, the Lord instructs his disciples concerning the humility and service that are the hallmarks of a true Christian:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. – Matthew 23: 1-12

St. Theophan the Recluse comments, “As the Lord tells us, greatness is measured not by birth, not by power, not by the measure of abilities and resources, but by the ability to provide good for others.” Paradoxically, when we forget about ourselves and are concerned only to please God and to serve others, we become our true selves. This is true greatness: to become that which God intends one to be.  Usually this occurs in obscurity:  very few men who are great in the eyes of the world have saved their souls. 

One of the few movies to come out of Hollywood that inspire admiration for genuine virtue is A Man for All Seasons, which – to emphasize how much things have changed in the past 50 years – actually won the Academy Award for best picture in 1966. The playwright and screenplay writer, Robert Bolt, did not aim at portraying the protagonist, Sir Thomas More, as a Roman Catholic saint – Bolt was not a believer – but simply as a courageous man who had the integrity to suffer for his convictions.  And it is not only More’s final sacrifice that conveys the moral message of the play: Several scenes and dialogues that lead up to the final crisis provide a short dramatized catechism in fundamental human integrity. 

At one point early in the story More is concerned that his young admirer Richard Rich will lose his soul by pursuing fame and power at the king’s court, and he tries to save him from the temptations of high office by offering him a position as a teacher at a new school which More has helped to found.  Rich is disappointed, knowing that More – at the time a member of the king’s Privy Council and soon to be Chancellor of England – could instead help him to find a place at court. Their exchange ends like this: 

More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Rich: If I was, who would know it?

More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

“You; your pupils; your friends; God.”  In this age of instant pseudo-greatness via mass media, everyone wants to be a “star.”  Yet the reality is that truly great people are usually known only to God and a few others.  The exception is the few better-known saints, a handful out of all the saints who have lived. And how many people today even know about them?

How do we attain to this kind of greatness: the greatness of authentic charity and self-forgetfulness?   Let us begin by admitting that we often are not seeking God’s will but our own corrupt will.   Let us begin each day by praying, “O Lord, today let me do Thy holy will.”   Then we must admit that we do not see ourselves as we truly are. Let us pray, “O Lord, reveal to me my sins and failings; show me how ego-centric I really am.”   Let us practice self-forgetfulness through two great activities: gratitude to God and service to others. Ingratitude, the mark of an immature and selfish soul, leads inevitably to despondency, depression, and even despair.   Let us force ourselves to thank God constantly for all that He is, for all that He has done for us, and for every single circumstance of our lives, especially the unpleasant ones.   Let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to what service we must render to others and how we should render it, beginning with our obvious duties according to our state of life, and proceeding to service to the Church and to those around us, as God reveals to us in prayer and the circumstances of life, and as our father confessor blesses us.  There have been great saints who have saved a multitude of souls, but usually the number of people we ordinary Christians can honestly help without losing our own souls will be very few, and we shall not have to search them out; they will find us.

The ultimate goal of every Christian is to dwell forever in the light of the Holy Trinity. Complete self-giving, self-emptying, is an essential characteristic of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in Their relations with each other; thus God is Charity.   If we desire to belong to God, we have to empty ourselves, too.  We have to forget ourselves.

What freedom:  to be forgotten by the world and even by one’s own self!   This is when real life begins.

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