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Of Phylacteries and Novice Belts: Pride –
St. Polycarp

by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.

 

“All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.”

St. Thomas points out in several places that wherever there is order, there is distinction. We see this principle at work all around us every day. When we come to Mass, the priests are up here in the sanctuary, and the lay faithful sit in the nave. When you have upperclassmen and lowerclassmen in one prep school, you have one color of tie for the one group and another color tie for the other group. Novices bind up their habits with Velcro belts, while professed religious use a sash that hangs down by their left knee. You could multiply the examples because they are all around us. We arrange ourselves with all these differences for the good order of our lives, but most all of it comes about by simple convention. It all makes life livable. When we’re mature and humble about such things, they help us to settle into that peace that is the tranquility of order, and we barely notice the details of the distinctions.

But what if we’re not mature or humble? Well then, those distinctions start to matter a whole lot more than they are supposed to. That’s when seniors lord it over juniors, juniors lord it over sophomores, and the poor freshman become everyone else’s whipping post; lay folks become the object of the clergyman’s scorn, and everyone just laughs with haughty pride at the poor novice’s sad little Velcro belt.

What’s really going on for that scribe or Pharisee who wants to widen his phylactery and lengthen his tassel? If I’m a proud man, I can’t even remain simple with the conventions of human life that maintain distinctions in the good ordering of my world. I want to widen that phylactery so that everyone can see it better, see how high I rank as a Pharisee while I pray … but really what I want to do is to hide. I want to hide behind that object, and if I make it wider I can hide even better. I’ve got my upperclassman’s tie, and you better respect it. I’ve got my clerical dignity, and you had better obey it. I wear a professed religious sash that hangs down by my left knee, and you novices had better envy it while you Velcro on and off your noisy little belt. All these ways of hiding are ridiculous, because no one is deceived, except of course the proud man himself who is hiding from himself and really only deceiving himself.

“Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord. Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow. Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” When the proud man is trying to hide, what he’s really afraid of is that people might see him as he really is—poor, dependent, weak, little, a sinner. Our Lord tells us today everything we need to know to end our proud game of hide and seek, and it’s this: “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s as if our Lord is telling that proud man who is trying to hide behind his phylactery or his tie (or his collar, or his sash), “Just admit to yourself that you are poor and weak, that you are little and a sinner. Show Me your scarlet sins. Bring Me all that crimson red shame. I’ll take it all away and lift you up. I came as one poor and weak; I died the death of a sinner so that you could bathe in My Precious Blood and become white as snow.”

As in all things, our Lady is the perfect model of this humility. She had no sins to bring before the Lord, but she knew that it was on account of her littleness and total dependence upon God that she was blessed. She herself proclaims, “For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant; behold, because of this all generations will call me blessed.” In her, the humble lowliness of the most dependent and most transparent of all God’s creatures touches on the loftiness of what happens when God exalts such a perfectly humble handmaid. He lifts her up to the very highest place above every other creature, and from her place there at the apex of the whole universe, she calls us out from our hiding places.

Through the intercession of our Lady, of St. Polycarp whom we commemorate today, and of all God’s humble holy ones there in heaven, may we embrace the truth of our weakness and rejoice to be forgiven of our sins and raised on high.

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