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The Light of the World Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New Pope Puts His Humility on Display, reads the headline, with no trace of embarrassment or irony. We miss the days when an editor, an expert handler of words, of their weight and feel and color, would have caught the gaffe, or would have recalled the saying of Jesus, that when we give alms we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.

Yet there is a sense in which our humility is to be visible. Or perhaps I don’t have that right, either. It is not so much that the humility itself must be visible, as that it must make the love of God visible. So says Jesus, hardly a moment after He has said that they who long most for the kingdom of heaven will be reviled and persecuted and slandered:

     Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
     Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick;
and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
     Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify
your Father which is in heaven.  (Mt. 5:14-16)

We are to give alms in secret, even in secret from ourselves, so that our Father who sees into the recesses of the heart will reward us.  We are to let our light shine out boldly, so that men may see our good works, and give glory to our Father in heaven.

I suspect that if one of these commands had appeared in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the other in his letter to the Ephesians, we would have scholars, adjusting the spectacles on their noses as they glance to the footnotes at the bottom of the page, informing us that the most recent research had proved, on just such grounds as these, that the letters could not have been the work of the same man. So it is that people educate themselves into a proud smallness of mind, which can no longer hold two great truths of a paradox together. The reader will no doubt have encountered various manifestations of the malady.

             The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by  Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794 – 1872)

When Jesus sees the Pharisees praying on the street corners and letting their faces go unwashed so as to make their fasts conspicuous, He condemns the hypocrisy and says that such men already have their reward. They have turned themselves into idols, for both themselves and others: for an eidolon is just that, an object to gaze upon, a vain spectacle, like a whiny songster strutting on a stage before thousands of fans, or a politician beaming before the crowds. They receive exactly what they have sought. The circle is closed. There is nothing more to say about it. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” says the conspicuous Pharisee, or the celebrity, or the politician, or any one of us when we turn to that most deceitful of all idols, ourselves, “who is the holiest of them all?” – or the most talented, the wisest, the smartest, the strongest, the best. “I am,” says the idol.

But we are to let our light shine before men, just as one would light a lamp and set it on the lampstand, to shed light for everyone in the house.  If we consider the metaphor, which is really a compressed parable, Jesus is suggesting a brave kind of humility. No one lights a lamp so that people will look at the lamp. We see the things that the lamp illuminates. To be the light of the world is not to be the object of the world’s attention; it is to be the medium whereby the world can see the love and the glory of the Father. 

All the more necessary it is, then, for our spiritual health, that we should be blind to our own light, first because it is from God and not ourselves, and second because we too need to see the light of God shining in the good works of other people. Jesus says that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing. He does not say that our left hand should not know what someone else’s right hand is doing; rather we should see God by the light of those works, and give Him glory. That glory-giving, that doxa, is our share in the generosity of God. We become most like Him when we lose ourselves in light.

Self-satisfaction is, then, is darkness. We are to be the unseen ambassadors of God, making Him visible by the light shed by our good works.  That is a difficult and dangerous charge. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” said the Forerunner; words that must be the motto of every Christian acting in the world. Somehow, we must be the living stained-glass windows, as the poet Herbert put it, through which the only story shines, the story of God’s love for sinful mankind, and His redeeming us from our slavery. 

We are to make that love manifest to the world in ways unique to each Christian, as every saint is brightly colored with the distinctions of God’s particular graces; a Saint Francis here, a Saint Dominic there. But it is the story-in-the-window that people see, and not the glass itself; and it is Christ whom the world should see, and not the brittle persons we are.

Eternal destinies hang in the balance: ours, and those of the people we meet in the ordinary interchanges of life, from the most intimate to the most incidental. But we have this blessing, too. The world outside of the Church is so dismal, so cheerless, that any light of faith, hope, and love that we may shine, as marred and grimed with self-regard as we may be, will appear like a new sun in the sky. Let it be so.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Reese, April 10, 2013
Humility is a virtue in practice; that state of being that illuminates love and truth.
written by debby, April 10, 2013
beautiful! AMEN to every line.
"self satisfaction, then, is darkness..."
how true.
and i have discovered that Disappointment is my first symptom of placing my Hope in the wrong place. and That happens when i have once again acted as if God NEEDS me to help Pride masquerading as "Christian works" when in reality i am "Baptizing my own desire and calling it the Will of God." it seems to take so long for the habit of grasping that provocative apple to be crushed by death (embracing the cross)and resurrected to conformity to Christ, living in only an ardent desire for "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done."
You, sir, may be one of His "seen" ambassadors, helping us (the unseen) to grow up in Him. i thank you for the impact you have already had on my spiritual life, a deeper standing in Truth in my misery before the God Who is Love.
Most recently, your article in January's Magnificat sharing Raissa's Maritain's prayer has pierced through the darkness of illusion and self absorbtion. Since Jan 1st i have prayed this almost daily, often after Holy Communion. i have copied it here for others' benefit.

My God I am here before Thee
I crumble into nothing before Thee
I adore Thy greatness
My need is immense
Have pity on me
Let Thy spirit dwell in me
Let the Holy Spirit live in me
The love of the Father and the Son
So that I may love Thee and Thou me
My God let my heart be pure
My intention be upright
My body be chaste
My God, let no one suffer through me,
May Thy truth enlighten me,
May Thy will be done.

Thank you dear Prof. Esolen, dear brother tony, for humbly sharing your God-given gift of words in Light. you are drawing many to Truth Himself. what a compelling Stained Glass Window you are.
written by Artemius, April 10, 2013
With all due respect to the sacred office of the papacy, the Pope does in fact put these acts of humility on display, so the headline is rather accurate. Pains me to say so, but there it is.
written by Jacob, April 10, 2013
Is anyone else offended that the Pope is meeting with the head of the UN (one of the biggest and most effective supporters of abortion in the world)?

Apparently the need to please leftists is a disease that now runs all the way to the top. That habit has brought us to our knees and nearly destroyed the Church, but let's keep tryin it! (I'm sure if we please a few more leftists they'll stop murdering children.)
written by Louise, April 10, 2013
Artemius, I think what we are seeing is what poverty of spirit looks like Pope Francis style. Since we've found that this is how he acted before he became pope, perhaps he has discerned that what the Holy Spirit wants from him is to simply continue his journey as before but with the expanded heart that having more children brings to every parent, spiritual or otherwise.
written by J. Tyler Ballance, April 10, 2013
I thought that Father Guido Sarducci would be the first Pope from the Americas, but I think that the Catholic community and the world, shall be very pleased with this wonderful man as the leader of the Holy Catholic Church.

I hope that he will not mind when people from the United States affectionately refer to him as, "Pope Frank..."

I pray that his time as Pope will begin a new era of peace and prosperity on our tiny blue planet.
written by susanna, April 10, 2013
How can a Pope do anything in secret? Any thing.
written by Humana , April 10, 2013
"Humility of display " ???? Bit of an oxymoron aint it?

Humility and Display are diametrically opposed concepts, my brother
written by Artemius, April 11, 2013
Susanna, a pope can secretly wear a hair shirt, for example, as Paul VI did. Very few people knew.

Louise, again, without intending to encourage a critical spirit with respect to the papacy, poverty in spirit is supposed to be secret and personal. Pope Francis is unfortunately opening himself up to the criticism that he is giving us an impoverished Church rather than a poor Church.
written by Louise, April 11, 2013
Artemius, poverty of spirit can't be secret because we are body and soul and our body expresses our person. Our actions are going to "spill the beans" of what is going on in our soul. Indeed, God wills it to be so, which is one of Anthony's points in the article.

Don't you think your "secret" view would skin religious life of its eschatological witness, for example? Certainly not every religious has poverty of spirit but they make a public profession of their attempt when they make their vows.

Although Pope Francis was released from his vows by his consecration as bishop, he has apparently found their exercise to be of continuing help and doesn't see the papacy as a barrier to doing so.

I didn't understand your point about an impoverished church rather than a poor church, can you elaborate?

What's interesting to me have been the comments of those who "knew him when". They have seen a blossoming of his personality since becoming pope, surely the grace of state kicking in.

We should rejoice because he seems to have a wonderful grace of disarming people.

written by JRF, April 11, 2013
I can save all readers time. If you read "debby" you have read my comments. debby said it much better than I could have.
To Jacob, shouldn't we wait to read what Pope Francis says to the UN before we excommunicate him? I find it hard to get people to change their mind on something I favor if I don't talk to them occasionally.

Why is it that after reading many of the comments on these enlightened articles in TCT the words, "because of the hardness of our heart...." keep ringing in my ears?
written by Artemius, April 11, 2013
Louise, part of what I am saying is that we cannot lose sight of the distinction between the person and the office. Each person, when in public, has a responsibility to meet the expectations that come with the office he holds. Indeed, meeting those expectations in and of itself is an act of humility--the person submits himself and offers himself to a higher order. To humble one's person is commendable, when done according to the terms Mr. Esolen describes. However, to humble one's office is another thing altogether. It is not the same thing as humbling oneself. Indeed, it might even be interpreted as an act of pride, as one is putting one's personal ideas above the received tradition. I am not accusing the holy Father of pride, and I am not suggesting that received traditions must be perfectly inflexible. I am suggesting that when the Holy Father acts in public in ways which subvert expectations regarding the his most sacred office, we should not be surprised to see the kinds of headlines Mr. Esolen quotes.
written by Louise, April 12, 2013
What exactly are the expectations that you see as coming with the office he holds? And how has he subverted those particular expectations?

So far I see that he has emphasized that he is the pope because he is the bishop of Rome; corrrect and not subversive in any way.
He has said the papal apartments are too big for his needs and would isolate him. Again a perfectly fine decision that is not subversive.
He has chosen a noble simplicity in his lifesyle; not subversive and helpful for the world which puts such a store on material wealth.
From the first moment of his ministry as pope he has asked for prayers; not subversive but a helpful reminder.
He is inviting sinners to return to confession, trusting in the mercy of God; correct and not subversive and so needed in our time when hardly anyone goes.
He is visiting the imprisoned and showing them the mercy of God; one of the works of mercy and not subversive.
He is reminding us that God so loved us that He became Man and saved is Jesus Who saves us, we don't save ourselves; beautiful reminder, not subversive.
He reminds us that the Church guards and interprets the Word of God-Scripture and Tradition; timely and not subversive.

And in all this he teaches in a way that is easily understood by all yet neglects not the fullness of the truth.

I await your examples!
written by Artemius, April 12, 2013

Wouldn't the Pope's referring to himself exclusively as the Bishop of Rome de-emphasize the fact that he is Pope, i.e., Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church?

As for the imprisoned, he did not merely visit, he incorporated laymen and lay women and non-Christians into the liturgy of Holy Thursday. Unexpected to say the least. And more than just the theme of humility is implicated.

The event which led to the headline quoted by Mr. Esolen is the Pope paying for his hotel bill in person. A small matter by itself, but when many such things are done, headlines will result. In fact, I am sorry to say that there are parodies circulating on the internet.

I could add to the list, but won't or I'll appear uncharitable. I will just say that in general the Pope's subversion of expectations are mostly liturgical and ceremonial.
written by Louise, April 13, 2013
Artemius, take heart. I think you will eventually be very happy with our Holy Father, our sweet Christ on earth as St. Catherine called a previous pope.
Our poor Church has been so divided. To me this pope offers a real opportunity of uniting us.
written by Paolo, April 14, 2013
"We see the things that the lamp illuminates." In fact, the light has that characteristic, to let the things emerge from the not-being (seen) to the unveiling. The space is full of light, but nothing is seen, because there is no reality out there.

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