In 13th century Italy there was a woman named Margaret. She was a very beautiful woman. And growing up she learned to appreciate her looks in a prideful way, using her looks to her advantage. She used her looks to gain the praise and attention of men. She used her looks for the gain of material gifts. She used her looks as a way of controlling men and this she found worked with the poor man as well as with the wealthy man. And being poor herself she set her sights on a wealthy man named Arsenio. By the age of 17 Margaret found herself living in Arsenio’s castle as his mistress, they never married. Margaret left behind any concern for God or neighbor. She gave up the faith of her childhood. She gave up prayer, Mass, and the Sacraments. It was all about her and her wants.
Living in that castle Margaret had the best food, the best clothing, the best entertainment. She had the best of everything there was no pleasure she didn’t indulge. For ten years all was well until one day Arsenio failed to return home. Margaret grew concerned so she went in search of him. And she found him eventually out in the woods under a pile of brush. Someone had murdered him and hidden the body. That moment was a turning point in Margaret’s life. She began to wonder, “What happened to the soul of Arsenio?” He had the same attitude she did, focused more on pleasure and self than on anything else. Where is his soul? Margaret then began to wonder what would happen to her if she were to die at that moment. This moment became her moment of conversion.
Margaret spent the next 33 years trying to humbly put her focus on God and her neighbor; she did this by working with the Franciscans helping the poor. She worked at learning humility. Margaret’s long conversion process was not always easy; as we can imagine, there were still moments of great temptation when she wanted to return to her old way of life. She was still beautiful and it could’ve happened. But, with God’s grace we now know Margaret as St. Margaret of Cortona, a patroness to invoke against temptations.
In our Gospel today Jesus tells us to be humble, to take the lowest place, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Spiritual writers will often write that humility is the queen of all the virtues. It is the foundation of the whole of our spirituality. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was once asked to name the four Cardinal virtues and instead of answering prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance he said instead, “The four cardinal virtues are humility, humility, humility, and humility.” He then went onto say that the word cardinal means hinge and everything hinges on humility. Humility opens the door to the hearts of others and humility opens the heart of God.
St. Paul once asked the question, “What do you have that you have not received?” In order to truly pursue truth and goodness it’s necessary to let go of the ego and to realize that everything we have, everything, is a gift from God. And one of those gifts I want to focus on right now is the Sabbath. As Mark’s gospel says the Sabbath was made for man, a gift for each of us. And one way Catholics can practice humility is to go to Mass every Sunday, putting God ahead of everything else at least for one hour out of 168 hours in a week.
In my twenties, for a whole decade I went to Mass every Sunday. But I didn’t do it out of humility or love; I did it out of fear. I was scared to commit a mortal sin, because it is still a mortal sin to willfully miss Sunday Mass. A sin that must be confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation before Holy Communion can be worthily received. No, for that decade of my twenties, I went to Mass out of fear of committing sin. I didn’t dwell on this fear, but I reasoned; what’s an hour out of a whole week. I wasn’t there to fully praise God; I wasn’t there to fully thank God, I wasn’t there to repent, and I rarely received our Lord in Holy Communion. Sometimes I’d go to Mass with a friend and we’d just talk and whisper throughout the entire Mass. I didn’t fully appreciate and receive the gift of the Mass. There was no conscious and full participation.
However, the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath, and the precept to attend Sunday Mass kept me going to Church week after week, month after month, year after year. And during that time God was working on my soul without me even noticing. The rule was good for me; it kept me going to Mass every Sunday until finally love took the place of fear. Without the incentive of a rule I wouldn’t have gone to Mass and I’m sure I wouldn’t be here now. I don’t need the rule now but it was helpful in its time.
Despite the great accomplishments we may achieve we are still dependent on the goodness and generosity of others-parents, teachers, friends, and most importantly we are dependent on God. We receive His life, we receive His love, and we receive His forgiveness. And we receive all this, not because we deserve it, because we don’t deserve it, but because He is infinitely generous. And that should always keep us humble. And in this humility and love let us attend Mass every Sunday praising God, thanking God, repenting of sin, giving Him our problems, giving Him everything, and then receiving Him in the Holy Eucharist.
We need the grace of God that we receive at Mass we need the holy friendship of those around us. Because we can’t do it alone; God doesn’t want us to do it alone.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley