Striving towards a fuller and deeper discipleship often draws the attention of others, and at times even praise. The danger is when we begin to internalize that praise, attributing to ourselves what rightly belongs to the Holy Spirit. As missionary disciples, we are asked to "walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8). Of course, as human beings, humility will always remain elusive. Even to think of ourselves as humble is an act of pride and ego. Yet, by being open to the Spirit, we can at times find ourselves humbled, if not humble.
During the past week, I joined with colleagues and fellow missionaries to represent Maryknoll at a national conference for Catholic educators. In sharing with teachers, principals, and others the work that we in Maryknoll are doing, I personally received thanks and praise from multiple people. While heartening, this praise makes me all the more grateful for two difficult, humbling moments on the last day of the conference. The first occurred when we, along with other exhibitors, packed up our booth as the conference drew to a close. Our small Maryknoll team finished relatively quickly. Exhausted from the week, I was ready to rush out the door and treat myself to a well-deserved drink.
But my colleague, Gaby, noticed that the Pauline Sisters near us were still packing up their booth of books, DVDs, CDs, and posters. She asked them if we could help. Not knowing quite what we were getting into, my colleague Giovanna and I ended up joining Gaby in helping these women pack boxes with these items, along with display racks, tables, floor mats - you name it. It took hours. This is work that these sisters would have done all by themselves, and it would have taken them at least twice as long without us. At one point, I stepped out of the exhibit hall. I was ostensibly taking a moment to answer work emails, but really I was exhausted and sought a reprieve from this unexpected labor. When I returned, Gaby was still at it. She helped the sisters load the van that would take them on their 9 hour drive home. She told me that they had only one tiny corner of open space reserved for their luggage.
When we left, the three of us did get that drink. We also walked around a tourist area of town and had a great time at dinner together. Gaby and Giovanna work for Maryknoll in New York, and I work in Seattle. At the end of the night we said our goodbyes, heading back to our hotels ahead of flights the next morning. As we parted, Gaby said to me that she appreciated working with me that week, that she found me to be "inspirational" and "a great missioner." All I could think of was how she had offered to help those sisters, and how I only happened to be there to follow her lead. Was I really such a "great" missioner?
It was a clear night, and I took the long walk across the city back to my hotel, rather than calling for a cab. As I neared downtown, I passed an old Church, which stood atop a flight of stairs. Under the arches of the doorway, a homeless man slept. I thought to myself, "There's Jesus." As I continued on, I noticed a younger man standing near the spot where the other man was sleeping. He was black (I'm white), and very tall. I greeted him and said, "How are you doing?" He said, "Good," and I continued on my way. Then he called out to me. I turned back and he approached. As his figure began to tower over me, I became afraid. He asked me if I "smoke" or "had a smoke." I said, "No, sorry," and quickly continued on my way. I felt like I was running away from Jesus.
Humility, like so many things, comes only with the grace of God. God humbles us out of love. One of the realities of discipleship is that we will fall short of Christ, because only Christ is perfect. God knows this, and does not expect the impossible from us. But God does invite us to strive always towards the Kingdom. Sometimes this means that we will find encouragement in how far we have come. Sometimes it will entail loving reminders of how far we need to go. In my life, I can only pray for the grace to thank God for both.