Vermis sum

The College of the Resurrection at Mirfield contains a great refectory. It has a barrel vault and long tables and benches. It is expected that the students take their meals there together. At the end of the room raised on a slightly higher level is the top table. In my time there, the principal sat in the middle and if we had guests we might well take them to sit there. I took Ana, a Spanish guest, whom the principal took quite a shine to. At the end of the meal, the students rose as the principal led the diners from the top table out to coffee. As he left, the principal  waggled his eyebrows and said to Anna ‘follow me!’ Afterwards she said to me, ‘I know what means ‘follow me’ but I thought, where are we going?!’

Students never jostled over seats at the top table, in fact we often had to be encouraged tos sit up there, to fill the places. We preferred to sit on the ordinary tables where there would be less onus to behave ourselves or make intelligent conversation.

How different to the guests that Jesus observed in the pharisee’s house, who competed for the places of honour. How degrading that spectacle must have appeared, if only they could have seen themselves as Jesus saw them. Jesus was especially critical of those with an exaggerated view of their own importance, who paraded their piety, wearing oversize phylacteries, and long tassels on their prayer shawls, who liked to be acclaimed in the streets as ‘rabbi’,  greeted obsequiously, and larded with praise.

Jesus advised them not to seek the places of importance, but to take a lower seat. From there they might be elevated, but they would not be humiliated and brought down.

This advice can extend to so much more than places at table. It can apply to any situation in which we assume that we deserve a place of importance: we might think our opinion should be worth more than that of other people; that we deserve to be treated better than anyone else; that the size of a gift means we should deserve more affection and appreciation.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing said: ‘If the thought which comes to you ( or which you invite) is full of human conceit regarding your honour, your intelligence, your gifts of grace, your status, talents or beauty, and if you willingly rest in it with delight, it is the sin of Pride.’

The writer of Ecclesiaticus, Bin Sirach, is scathing in his criticism of the proud, ‘There is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him.’

We see such overblown pride in church monuments that proclaim the pedigree of the deceased and laud their achievements and virtues, some of them great monstrous intrusions into our churches, diverting the attention from God to human achievements. How much better the attitude of William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons during the Civil War, who requested no monument but a simple slab in Burford Church in Oxfordshire that read , ‘Vermis sum.’ I am a worm.

The quotation is taken from Psalm 22, ‘I am a worm and no man, scorned by men and despised by the people.’ Having such a phrase as a reminder can prick the foolish pride that makes us seek the places of honour and is offended when we are not treated as we think we deserve.

The Christian soul rejoices in the achievements of others, in others being praised, in others being raised up to be honoured. As Mary rejoiced in the Magnificat, 'he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts'; those whose arrogance prevents them from understanding God, but 'he has lifted up the lowly'.  As St Therese of Lisieux said, ‘the very moment God sees us fully convinced of our nothingness, he reaches out his hand to us.’

The words of Jesus are more than good advice on how to avoid a social come-uppance. Luke says he told those men a parable, and a parable has a sting in its tail. For Jesus is saying to these Pharisees, to those who considered themselves closer to God, his favorites, to beware lest they be mistaken. Others whom they look down on may actually be the ones who are closest to God.

We should not presume to say who is in and who is out with God. It is not for us to judge, and we must not condemn, that is the Lord’s command. As the Prayer of Humble Access reminds us: ‘we do not presume to come to this thy table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs from under thy table, but thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.'