The following Rector's Conference was presented this evening on the theme: I am little...and God is Big.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to preach the summer retreat to the Bishops of New England. I presented fourteen talks on twelve words from the Roman Canon.
As most of you know, I have spent a good deal of the past twenty years of my life working in one way or another with the translation of the Roman Missal, so twelve words from the Roman Canon seemed a good starting point for a reflection on those spiritual realities which we need to pay attention to in seeking to live a life of holiness, of fidelity to God and to his Church.
Of all those words, though, the toughest, by a long shot was supplices, as in:
Súpplices te rogámus, omnípotens Deus
In the end, the Bishops rendered supplices with the words “in humble prayer.”
In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God
Supplices is the word of a supplicant, one kneeling, begging, entreating in humble submission…beseeching God. That’s why its used where it is in the Roman Canon. There’s a wonderful poetic ballet played out as we bow low saying supplices and ask that Christ bear the gifts we have placed upon this earthly altar to his altar in heaven!
The supplices of the Roman Canon thus signifies the joining of our sacrifice to his, a union of heaven and earth, and even a glimpse into what we shall know, God willing, in the eternity of heaven.
And it all starts with supplices. But I’m afraid, we're not very good at it.
We’re not very good at facing the fact that I am little and God is big: that God is greater and more beautiful, omniscient, omnipotent, all loving…Bigger than I could ever imagine.
The hardest thing for our culture and time (let’s face it, the hardest thing for us!) is to recognize our littleness and God’s greatness, our utter dependence on his grace.
This was made evident by the omission of so many deprecatory words from the 1970 translation of the Roman Missal, deprecamur, mereamur and supplices, exoramus, suplicitor, just don’t make sense in a universe where we are the center of all things and the arbiter of all power and meaning.
Take, for example, the Prayer after Communion for the upcoming Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Refectióne tua sancta enutríti,
Dómine Iesu Christe, súpplices deprecámur,
Having been nourished by your holy banquet,
we beseech you, Lord Jesus Christ,
to bring those you have redeemed by the wood of your life-giving Cross
to the glory of the resurrection.
We beseech you, O Lord! A bit archaic, perhaps, but so, sadly, is the very concept of utter dependence upon God.
Supplices implies that I have looked on my own littleness and declared that there is only one God and he ain’t me. As Mary said in her Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
because he has looked on his servant in her littleness.
Which is precisely why Mary can say fiat: Be it done to me according to your word, because she has professed her littleness and God’s greatness. God knows best.
You may recall how it took Bruce a bit longer to come to that realization. First he wanted to be God, then he was made God, and then, in the end, he changed his mind:
CLIP FROM BRUCE ALMIGHTY
Supplices means I have to obey, and obedience is not exactly one of my favorite things. I'm not too thrilled by littleness and obedience, and it comes out in the strangest ways sometimes. Ask my best friend, who turned to me one day after a long period of my spouting all knowingly and said, you know James, you're the only one I know who can make me cry with frustration.
We are made for obedient love, and from the moment we went down into those waters of Baptism with Christ were joined to his death, it's all we've been about. A constant conversion to life from death, and to purity from sin, and to light from darkness.
Such a continuing conversion is rooted in a sense of self that emerges from a radical humility, an assuredness that I am not God....the Shema Israel, which heralds and caps every act of Jewish worship, says it all: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." It's a takeoff on the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God and you shall have no false Gods before me.”
But we fight against it all the time. Whenever we don’t get our way, we stomp our feet and threaten God, sometimes even contemplating ending it all. That’ll show him! In a painfully ironic scene from Patch Adams, Robin Williams (God rest his soul) contemplates jumping off a cliff because someone he has loved has died. But then God, at least in the movies, gives him second thoughts:
CLIP FROM PATCH ADAMS
Would that more movie clips were real life.
Such a conversion to humility, to the constant conviction that I am little and God is big, that I am child and he is Father, results in a radical obedience, not to my self- actualization, but to the plan God has for me and for my life.
Yet is there anything which I fight against more instinctively than the sense that I am not God. I once heard a certain Roman cardinal utter the ultimate sharp rebuke to a staffer who was heatedly trying to convince him of something: Suppose, Father, just for a moment, that you were not God.
That’s the lesson the priest counseling Rudy passed on, when Rudy just wasn’t getting into Notre Dame:
CLIP FROM RUDY
Yet we fight against those incontrovertible truths with our every waking breath. Just like our first parents, whose sin, ultimately, was not the fruit stolen from the tree, but the disordered conviction that they could be God if they just ate the right kind of fruit.
You see it in every three year old, possessed by the absolute conviction that he is the center of the universe, the ultimate arbiter of meaning, justice, and truth, in other words that he, stamping his feet, screaming and crying is God.
It happens to us all. We scream and threaten and hold our breath until we turn blue. But then we reach the point where we stop stamping our feet and find ourselves knocked off of our high horse and on our knees. It happens so much in life that its a constant theme in the movies, like when it happened to George in Its a wonderful life:
CLIP FROM IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
He started to pray! That’s why those moments in life are such a blessing, because they knock you off your feet and onto your knees.
The follower of Christ is thus repeatedly called to an obedience that does not deem equality with God something to be grasped at...but rather empties itself, taking the form of a slave, and becoming a little child, opening its arms upon a cross in perfect obedience to the Father's will.
We are made for obedient love. It is our dignity. It is our destiny. It is our purpose for being.
Let me close with Saint Benedict's description of the three ways of loving God. You remember it. At first, Saint Benedict tells us, we love God because we love ourselves. I don't want to go to hell, so I do what he wants.
At the second stage, I love God because he is lovable. I have no choice. I have so deeply fallen in love within him that I want only to do his will.
And then there's the third stage of loving God, the one which few reach but the only state in which true holiness and purity reside, wherein I love me only because God loves me. Only then does my every waking moment seek the will of God. My next breath has value only if it is part of God's plan. My fondest hopes and my deepest desires are but cinder and ash unless they are a part of his plan. In other words, it is not my will but his, not me, but Christ Jesus in me, it is I, like John the Baptist, who must decrease and he who must increase.
That’s the prayer of the man who knows how to say supplices.