You’ve perhaps heard the story told about the Russian dictator Josef Stalin and his German counterpart, Adolf Hitler falling off their chairs. Both men were given seats of honor side by side each other at a banquet. Noticing that their chairs could be adjusted to become higher or lower, each of them put considerable effort to adjust their chairs to be higher under the deluded thinking that elevated chairs corresponded with strength and honor. Those days they’d not started making stoppers for the adjustable chairs; hence, both men having adjusted their chairs to the limit, fell to the floor. So much for honor, position and pride. Jesus tells us today that honor is rightly honor when given, and not taken.
The first reading has a clear message for both men and all who think very highly of themselves and crave only self-affirmation. The sage, Ben Sirach admonishes that “the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly,” warning that “there is no cure for a proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him” (Sirach 3:20). Pride is a form of cancer that can easily destroy a person from within. It does also destroy nations and societies. Pride can infect and destroy a person so that he becomes insensitive to his misjudgments and fools around in servile flattery of self and bloating of the ego. Pride can infect a society to the extent that mechanized opinions turn into technologically created and emplaced pseudo-reality. It can destroy a nation making its government and people oblivious of the dangers surrounding them, and rather dance around the Trojan horse in their midst. Pride is an evil that can get so deeply ingrained into a person—into the fibers of his muscles, the cells of his blood, the fissures of his brain that he revolts against the very thought of its removal by Perfect Goodness (Sheen). No one is immune from prideful thinking.
And it’s important to state that not every use of the word “pride” is evil. We can be proud of our mother (I certainly am); we can and should be proud of our nation and our heritage. To some degree, we should be proud of our gifts, talents and accomplishments, albeit with a spirit of humility, realizing that everything we are and have is a gift from the Maker, supported by others. Such humility recognizes what we are but does not lie, adulate, flatter or admire servilely. Just as it would be prideful to blow our talents out of proportion, it would also not be humble for a six-foot tall person to say that she’s only five-foot tall or an opera singer to say, “I’m tone deaf.” In fact, the latter might just be another prideful way of fishing for compliments and expecting someone to say: “Oh, you’re so tall or you’re such a talented individual.”
A picture of “a turtle on a fencepost” was how Alex Haley, author of the novel, Roots, reminds himself that he didn’t get to where he was by himself alone, but was helped by others. I always remember the people who guided me through my journey to the priesthood. I remember that I failed—or thought I failed—the entrance interview into the minor seminary. But one of the priests who interviewed me insisted, for reasons known only to him, that I should be accepted for formation. Similarly, I left the seminary before my diaconate, but the rector of the seminary made every effort to have me back to complete my formation. And as I recall my ordination to the priesthood 25 years ago, the picture that comes to my mind is, yet, that of the turtle on a fencepost, to remind me that I didn’t get here without a lot of help from others. I honestly do not think myself better than many classmates who left or were dismissed along the way. I’m sure that I must have had the same doubts they had and perhaps made similar mistakes that caused their being asked to withdraw. That is why I think of myself as a lump of clay in God’s hand, still being molded, and an earthenware jar holding within me immeasurable gifts that are totally undeserved.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo