Fr. Michael Schleupner, a favorite retreat presenter and spiritual director at our Center, offered the follow as a homily last Sunday. Let’s see what we can learn from his insight about small talk and humility.
On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” ~Lk 14:1, 7-14
The Fine Art of Small Talk
A woman named Debra Fine has written a book titled The Fine Art of Small Talk. She also leads seminars on this same topic. These seminars have attracted many people and often they are persons who cringe at the thought of making small talk at social gatherings.
One of Debra Fine’s interesting insights is this. She says that to be a good conversationalist, we need to focus our attention first on others and not on ourselves. She says that a good conversationalist always lets others know that they have our undivided attention. That begins the process of a relationship. Then, after others feel that we are interested in what’s going on in their lives, they will usually turn the spotlight back to us. Then we will have a chance to share something about ourselves.
Well, without intending it, that book or seminar – The Fine Art of Small Talk – contains a significant insight into humility.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” So, Jesus lifts up the virtue of humility, but the question is: what is humility?
Maybe the first thing is to say what humility is not. It is not pretending that we are less skilled or less intelligent than we really are. Humility does not mean that we put ourselves down and feel that we are less than others. It is not diminishing ourselves.
What Humility Is
So, what is humility? Humility has more to do with our center of attention. It means that in our relationship with God, we recognize the greatness of the One who has created us. So, our focus first needs to be on God and not on ourselves.
And then, humility means that in our human relationships, we recognize that each of us is of equal value. And because the love of God calls us to take the first step in reaching out, again our focus first needs to be on the other person and not on ourselves.
The insight is that humility is really about the center of attention—similar to what the book and seminar say that I quoted. It means that our center of attention is first on God and others.
Not Easy to Do
Now, this is not always easy to do. It is not easy for shy folks to engage with another person; or for chatterboxes to listen to the other person; or for those of us who are driven by their own personal goals to listen to the interests of another; or for those of us who are stressed all day long to take in the stress of another.
Placing our attention first on God and others takes real effort because so many factors in our human condition lead us to do just the opposite. So, let’s look at a few examples that may help us to do this.
Some Helpful Examples
Young children with their toys have a good training ground for humility. By our encouraging them to share their toys, children develop the ability to be friends. Our encouragement helps them to make others and not just themselves the center of attention.
A married couple or two adult friends also have opportunities for learning humility. When we see one another after a hectic day, we might first be tempted to unload and dump. Instead, you might first invite your spouse or friend to share how their day has been.
Or even when we come here to Mass, we have an opportunity for humility. We can make sure that we are first interested in what God wants to say to us rather than what we want to say to God. And we can make sure that our prayers include the needs of others.
If we do things like these, if we first make God and others the center of our attention, then amazingly, we will almost always find ourselves well-tended. As paradoxical as it may seem, the words of Jesus will ring true: “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
~ Fr. Michael Schleupner
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