Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Humility has a puzzle built into it: if you claim to have it you haven’t it. A preacher long ago was heard to announce, “It’s my humility that makes me the man I am.” And Lord Longford quotes a man who when asked to name the best book on humility replied, “Actually it is one I wrote myself.”
In the light of that, how are we to interpret Mary’s words: that the Lord had looked on her lowliness, and that all generations would call her blessed? At once humble and famous…. The difference is that she was talking about God and not about herself. Bede the Venerable (+735) wrote: “In her own judgment Mary was indeed Christ’s humble servant, but with respect to grace she pronounces herself lifted up and blessed….” Grace does not mean self-accreditation, but God's gift. St Bernard of Clairvaux, centuries later, made the same point: “We can breathe again, my brothers and sisters, for if we are nothing in our own hearts, perhaps there is another opinion of us hidden in the heart of God - O Father of mercy, O Father of those who need mercy! Why do you set your heart on us? I know, I have the answer: your heart is where your treasure is. How can we be nothing if we are your treasure? In your sight all are as if they were not... yes indeed, before you, but not within you; in the judgment of your truth... but not in the love of your fatherly heart.... All your ways are mercy and truth to those who seek your covenant and your faithfulness: a covenant of fatherly love and faithfulness of truth.”
The ego can put on a show of humility, for strategic purposes, but it is incapable of real humility. Real humility leaves no room for the ego. If we don’t believe in God or indeed in anything beyond the ego, it is impossible to be humble. It is said that God resists the proud and favours the humble. When you open it up you see that it is the proud who resist God; their egos take the place of God. The humble do not resist in this way, so God is able to come to them. St Augustine as usual throws a clear light on it. Commenting on the parable of the two men who went to the Temple to pray (Lk 18:5-14), he noted that the Pharisee’s eyes were on himself - as he “burped his undigested food, breathing out the fumes of his intoxication,” Augustine adds colourfully. “The tax collector, on the other hand, ‘was standing a long way off,’ but the Lord was drawing near him. He did not dare to raise his eyes to heaven; yet where he did not raise his eyes, that is where he had his heart.”
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