How To Be Great

Two roads constantly open in front of us. One leads us to an artificial sense of conceit and blank acclaim, the other grounds us constantly to our real self of littleness and truth. Foolishly, many take the first road. The wise prefer to walk along the other route. The Master himself is clear, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A successful executive and his wife were out for a drive. Running low on gas, they stopped at a dumpy-looking gas station. While the executive went inside to pay the bill, he noticed that his wife and the gas station attendant were absorbed in conversation as if they were old friends. It turns out that they had gone to high school together and had dated seriously for over 10 months. The executive bragged, “Gosh, were you lucky I came along! Because, if you had married him, you would be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of an important chief executive officer.” The reply was blunt, “My dear, if I had married him, he’d be the chief executive officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.”

I remember reading one time about a political leader in Washington DC who one evening, remarked casually to his wife, “My dear, do you know how many truly great men there are in the world today?” Without a second thought, she replied, “No, I don’t, but I do know there is one less than you think there is!!”

This is why the book of Proverbs counsels us, “If you have played the fool and exalted yourself …clap your hand over your mouth!”

The Battle of the Wilderness was the first battle between Major Grant and Major Lee in the American Civil War in 1864. During this battle, Union general John Sedgwick was inspecting his troops. At one point he came to a parapet, over which he gazed out in the direction of the enemy. His officers suggested that this was imprudent and perhaps he ought to duck while passing the parapet. “Nonsense,” snapped the general. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A moment later Sedgwick fell to the ground, fatally wounded.

A young woman came to speak with the priest about a problem that was troubling her. “You know, when I am in Church, I just cannot control myself. I keep looking at the other women and I cannot help not realizing that I am the most pretty of them all! None of them others can compare with my beauty! Am I sinning, Father?” “No, my dear, you are not. You are just short sighted!” And, let me add, dumb!

Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real. The desert fathers abound in stories like this one. To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: “I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.” But the brother responded, “Are you sure? You must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel.” Immediately the devil ceased to appear.

The Saints are so free of this obsession to be always number one and to be acclaimed! Saint Paul in the First letter of Corinthians, exclaims, “I am the least of the Apostles”, in Ephesians, he claims to be “the very least of all saints” and in Timothy, he becomes even bolder, “I am the foremost of sinners.” He is lucid in his thinking, “Who makes you, my friend, so important? What do you possess that was not given? If then you received it all as a gift, why take the credit to yourself?”

Saint Francis de Sales makes a short commentary on this. “I am despised and derided, and I resent it; just so do peacocks and apes. I am despised and derided, and I rejoice in it; thus did the Apostle.” We are just little servants of an illustrious Master!

Cardinal Newman gives us a healthy conclusion. “Do you desire to be great? Make yourself little. There is a mysterious connection between real advancement and self-abasement. … If you bear with the arrogant, submit to insult, endure ingratitude, render good for evil, you are as by a divine charm, getting power over the world and rising among the creatures. God has established this law. Thus He does His wonderful works.”

True humility brings contentment.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.