Pope Benedict XVI once said, “He who acts on Christ’s behalf knows that it is always the case that one sows and another reaps. He does not need to bother incessantly about himself; he leaves the outcome to the Lord and does his own part without anxiety, free and cheerful he is hidden within the whole. If priests today so often feel overworked, tired and frustrated, the blame lies with a strained pursuit of results.” (Called to Communion, 1991) The same applies to anybody seeking to do good for others.
Blessed Mother Theresa used to train the Sisters of Charity for God’s providential method of keeping his servants humble. She would say to her religious sisters that it should not surprise any of them that they strenuously labor to lay the foundation for some project or enterprise only to have someone else to put the finishing touches on it and get the credit for it. This kind of self-effacement is necessary if God is to be glorified. It is not only a great spiritual sacrifice but it is our gift to Christ, who, allowed himself to be effaced by hiding his divinity in his humanity and choosing to live in humble circumstances.
Hyacinth Blocker, in his book, Walk With the Wise (1950), said, “What better penance can we present to God than this effacement of self? So often we think of penance only in terms of detachment from bodily comforts, imagining that penance has reference only to food and drink, to sleep and recreation, to pleasures of sense. Penance also means detachment from honor and fame. It means the erasure from our hearts of pride, vanity, conceit and ambition. It means the rubbing out of that self-centeredness and that exaggerated opinion we often hold of ourselves.”
Another example of self-effacement is the seer of Lourdes, St. Bernadette. Our Lady appeared to her in a series of apparition in 1858. Naturally, as the miracles increased and as her fame spread throughout France, St. Bernadette became the object of admiration and public attention. However, in order to keep the Saint pruned, so to speak, the Lord allowed to her to undergo humiliations and opportunities to forget herself.
For instance, the first basilica at Lourdes was consecrated in 1876, eighteen years after the Blessed Virgin Mary had made this request. One would think that she would want to be present for this great festive moment. After all, she was the chief instrument through which the message of Our Lady of Lourdes was communicated and the miracles that followed. But she declined to attend in order to avoid the public attention. She even told the Sisters of Notre Dame at Nevers “Oh, if only I could see without being seen.”
Blocker then adds: “Perhaps this was the severest sacrifice of her entire life, to deliberately decline the invitation to attend the ceremonies; to remain, instead, in the shadows of obscurity and oblivion when all of her love centered around that holy spot where Mary had smiled upon her…”
It would have been easy to attend this ceremony. And who would not have loved, at least deep down, to receive a little recognition? Especially after having gone through all the scrutiny and doubts that rained down upon her by the clergy and the press.
In the age of stardom that we find ourselves in, this virtue of self-effacement, practiced by all of the Saints, is unintelligible to most people. Nevertheless, it is a necessary virtue for us if we are to share in the joy and peace these same Saints benefited from. Furthermore, when we are not consumed with or distracted by not getting the credit for some great achievement or work we performed, the Lord can truly use us for even greater things. Even more important is to know that God will reward every act of generosity we do privately. He who loses himself will find not only himself as he was but a better self.
The desire for human respect, applause and the love of the multitude is not such a bad desire. In fact, the friend of God can expect that desire to be fulfilled…but only in heaven. On this side of eternity, however, such loving attention and applause works to our disadvantage. And as we make our to heaven, we, to use the words of Benedict XVI, would do well to leave the outcome of our labor to the Lord.