In a recent National Public Radio interview, columnist Maureen Dowd was asked about her writing habits. She mentioned she adheres to a very rigid schedule, writing at the same time, for the same number of hours every day. When the interviewer asked whether she felt inspired to write each time she sat at her computer, Dowd remarked, “My inspiration usually comes only after I start writing. It’s almost never there before.”
I can identify with her comment. Fortunately, as a writer, I have to meet a deadline for these weekly commentaries. Most of the time I write because I have to write. I’m not driven by some irresistible impulse to create words and sentences. If I don’t begin, the inspiration doesn’t begin.
That’s one of the reasons I appreciate both Sirach and Jesus’ comments on humility today, Neither is talking about anything very “religious” when they mention humility in the first part of both readings. Some commentators even classify these as “Emily Post” sections of Scripture. Yet when the two writers encourage people to be humble, they’re simply asking them to be honest; to acknowledge who they actually are, what turns them on, or makes them tick.
Though, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, we’re destined for more glory, and a greater presence of God than even Moses and the Israelites experienced at Mt. Sinai, most of the time we don’t have the passion which would drive us to accomplish the things necessary to achieve such glory. We’d do a lot more of Sirach’s almsgiving and Jesus’ care of the poor if we just “felt” like it.
There’s an important interchange in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. An American reporter, discovering that Turkish soldiers frequently kill Bedouin captives, asks Prince Feisal what Lawrence does with Turkish prisoners of war. Feisal responds, “For Lawrence, mercy is a passion; for me, it’s good manners. Into which our hands would you rather fall?”
Feisal’s remark becomes significant further into the movie when Lawrence, overwhelmed with rage, orders his men to slaughter a column of surrendering Turkish troops. To say the least, those who operate solely out of passion are very unpredictable.
In the context of Sirach and Luke’s readings, to be humble implies we admit that we’re not naturally inclined to do what God asks us to do. Even if we do have an overwhelming passion on one or two occasions to actually carry out God’s will, it never lasts very long, and we can’t count on it coming back tomorrow.
Just as Maureen Dowd reflected on her creative inspiration only kicking in after she actually starts to write, so our passion to imitate Jesus usually kicks in only after we dispassionately start to imitate him.
I’ve often encouraged people not only to examine their consciences before they go to sleep at night, but also to do so before they get out of bed in the morning. Just as a night time examen leads us to look back on the day, a morning examen can force us to look forward to the day; to think about the people we’re expecting to encounter or the situations we’re going to be part of. Can we come up with at least one way to be another Christ to those people or in those situations, even if we don’t particularly feel like doing so?
In some sense, we can be as cold and calculating about putting the faith of Jesus into our lives as we can about the good manners we’ve learned and are expected to show. On some memorable occasions, it might just happen that when we go to bed, we’ll be amazed at the amount of passion we showed during the day, not in our good manners, but in our faith-driven acts of love.