The Litany of Humility reminds me of MacIntyre Acolytes, Bernie Bros, or Jesus’ disciples. Just because devotees of a particular man or creed are insufferable doesn’t mean that the object or subject of their adulation is defunct. It’s easy to scoff or deride or discount the central teaching of the master because of his bumbling disciples. But simply because the disciples ore boorish or distasteful doesn’t mean that the teacher ought to be discredited. If 2020 thus far has taught us nothing else, it’s certainly that there’s been more to Bernie all along than The Establishment gave him credit for, pace his Very Online followers. The project of Making Christians More Like Christ, est. 33 AD, remains a work in progress with no clear end in sight.
So just because I find speech about the Litany of Humility a bit off-putting (Why are you saying these things! Why are you praying a prayer that you say makes you “feel bad”!! What is—and I cannot stress this enough—happening!) I do think the Litany of Humility’s flaws are more intrinsic than those of Bernie, or Alastair, or (clearly) Jesus. Embedded in its prayer is the “more/less” paradigm, the imagination of scarcity that is so fundamentally contrary to creation. Our God is a God of abundance, Creation is gift—something unearned, unmerited, gratuitous, abundant, plentiful.
Caveat: I’m very proud and I don’t like to be told so, and I do love being right, so I do think part of the reason that the Litany of Humility irks me is that there’s something in it that does and ought to challenge me. The fact that prayer grinds my gears is indicative that I’m still not fully baptized into wisdom. And there’s much in the prayer that is not bad “from the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.” That’s great! Who cares about what other people say, live your life, girlfriend, do your thing, sparkle hard, etc. But also, our fear of being humiliated is not a net negative moral function. If our fear of being humiliated keeps us from sending a significant other a nude or making a pass at our subordinate at work or not saying something rude about a coworker in public, then the fear of being humiliated is a good thing. It’s clearly still an egotistical reason for not doing wrong that falls short of charity. But there’s nothing wrong about wanting others to think well of us. Reputations are a fundamental part of what it means to be a social animal.
So all this to say that everything contains a glimmer of the good and there’s certainly streaks of light in this litany. But there’s something about the prayer that does ring false whenever I encounter it. Something in it reminds of me of priests who recite certain formulae but never look you in the eye with a warmth that says they understand. Something about it seems shallow and still a bit skeletal. Its scope feels limited, it’s small-minded, it doesn’t quite ring with the sort of liquid abundance of St. Francis’ canticles, or the perfumed ecstasy of the Newman prayer, or the simple raptures of Teresa’s poetry.
The scope of God is missing from this prayer. It seems confined by ego.
Personally, I think it’s dumb to pray that others are esteemed more than you, or are preferred to you are may be chosen more than you. Because we’re not in competition with others for our success or well-being. Another person being loved, praised, and full of success and flourishing is just simply not in competition with your success, well-being, or goodness. Your elevation is truly only cause for their rejoicing, as is theirs for you. “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should” is a line that is just riddled with more contortions than a game of Twister. These are the sort of trapped rationalizings that causes the rest of the world to shake their heads at the guilt-ridden Catholics.
I do think that the Litany of Humility’s goal is freedom—it is supposed to foster in the person praying a sense of healthy detachment from the world, from status, from competition for status over others. But I really don’t think that stating the problem in the terms dictated by the problem is the key to freedom. The litany of humility is a prayer for humility, but written in the lingua franca of pride.
In this case, semantics, the mental narrative by which we frame the problem, really do matter. And the litany of humility is a prayer for freedom from the problem of pride that simply reinforces in its composition the broken imagination of pride and competition for resources—competition for love.
Humility is living in truth, and it’s hard to find the truth when you keep reiterating the lie.