Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blessed are the meek and humble...

In this week’s readings from Wisdom and from the Gospel we are clearly called to the virtue of humility. Personally, I’ve struggled with how to identify with this virtue, even to understand the nature of this virtue, not least because of the message that the world consistently presents to us. I remember everyone from parents to coaches to teachers to Marine Corps drill instructors urging me to show some pride! PRIDE! Isn’t that one of the seven deadly sins? I even had the experience of a brother priest telling me that if I wanted to be noticed, if I wanted to achieve the things that are near to my heart, I would have to promote myself – get myself out there! That seems so wrong to me.

As Christians, we are called – very clearly today – to be humble, meek. We are also called, elsewhere in the scriptures to have courage, to be confident. Very often our difficulty is in recognizing where that calls us to be. Again, this confusion is fed, in no small part, by the messages the world gives us with regards to these words, even by our natural human tendencies.

Pride is offered by parents, coaches and teachers (even drill-instructors) as a positive thing. It is that by which we can go out with confidence and achieve great things. Unfortunately, when it is not touched by humility, it can tip over into arrogance, triumphalism, even militance.

Humility also suffers from historical caricature. So often we are given a picture of humility or meekness as walking around with our heads lowered, meek to the point of mousiness. It is a picture of one who gets run-over, one who is a doormat.

I’ve struggled over where courage/confidence and humility/meekness meet. This is an important struggle because we are called to both. What is the virtue where these meet? What is the word?

It occurs to me that the answer is found in the baptismal rite. In the baptismal rite, after the washing with water and the anointing with chrism there is the presentation of the baptismal garment. Along with the white garment comes this injunction: “See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity…bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.

Dignity! That’s the virtue whereby we have confidence and act with courage, meekness, and humility all at once. But, having the right word is not enough. How do I find that dignity in my heart? Who will show me? Who will be my role-model?

When I began to think this over my mind almost immediately turned to Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Unfortunately, Venerable Pierre is not very well known to us. But, he is an utterly fantastic role-model for all people, especially with regards to seeing very clearly that intersection between confidence/courage and humility/meekness.

Venerable Pierre was born into slavery in Haiti in 1766. His master, a French plantation owner, taught him to read and write. Following the French Revolution there began to be more frequent slave uprisings in Haiti and so Pierre’s master moved his family and some of their household slaves to New York City. Once there, Pierre’s master apprenticed him to a hairdresser. He became very adept at dressing hair in the European fashions popular with the elite of New York society. He came to be much in demand and he was able to take on many clients and was able to make a great deal of money. He was popular with New York’s society women because not only was he an excellent hairdresser, but he was an excellent listener and gave them spiritual advice drawing on his experience of attending Mass at 6:00 am each morning at old St. Peter’s and reading the works of such masters as St. Alphonse Liguori. He was well known for his respect for the confidentiality of his patrons. He was well-known for saying, “Toussaint is a hairdresser, not a newspaper”.

He used the wealth he accrued to buy the freedom of many slaves in New York, including the woman who was to be his wife. He also started an orphanage and donated to schools, hospitals and other charitable works. He didn’t just donate money. When a great epidemic hit New York he went out and personally cared for those who were stricken. He also donated for the construction of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Ironically, he never bought his own freedom. In fact, when his master lost everything in the slave uprisings in Haiti, it was Pierre who supported his mistress for the rest of her life. She seems to have never known that it was her slave who was supporting her in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. He cared for her until the day of her death when, at the age of 41, he finally was granted his freedom.

This man of dignity and grace continued to make a living dressing hair and continued to use his wealth to free other slaves and to support, and gain support through his many patrons, for so many charitable works in New York. A friend once suggested that he was wealthy enough to retire to a very comfortable life. He agreed that he could live comfortably on what he had, but if he quit working he wouldn’t have the resources to assist so many of those who were in need.

This man of grace would not even bow to self-righteous rage when he was denied entrance one day to the very church that his money had done so much to build. Imagine! He remained faithful to the end in a way that completely befuddles the spirit of this world.

Because of this his funeral was quite the affair. This man who had no family was sent off by a church filled with admirers – Catholic, protestant, black, and white. They knew that they were commending to almighty God a saint who had walked in their midst.

Today, Venerable Pierre Toussaint lies at rest with the Cardinals and Archbishops of New York beneath the altar of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At the intersection of confidence and humility, there is God – and Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Through the example and prayers of this great Catholic-American, and the grace of God, may we too be found there, not only in the life to come, but even yet in this life.


  1. Thank you for that wonderful biographical account of Venerable Pierre Toussaint. I love how the stories of the saints are so rich and varied. They enable us to connect to the simplicity of holiness in our different life circumstances. The saints are as different as can be as far as personality, situation, experiences, but the thread of Christ throughout their lives is what unites them.

  2. Wonderful! I love this-"at the intersection of confidence and humility, there is God."

    I can't imagine remaining calm in not being allowed inside the church-I don't know if rage would be the emotion I would conjure, but deep hurt and sadness most certainly. What a wonderful role model we have in Venerable Pierre Toussaint.


Comments are most welcome! As always, be charitable and remember the 8th Commandment (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor).