The Litany of Humility
This Sunday, several at the Brooklyn campus felt moved, rebuked, or inspired by the litany of humility.
A couple of notes before we share the full text:
For one, this litany was written by Rafael Merry del Val. Rafael was a Catholic cardinal who served under Pope Pius X and was known as a dude who negotiated peace, who refused to slander his brothers, and who combated some of the old traps of modernism that had seeped into the ranks of the clergy – even into Pope Pius, under whose authority Rafael submitted himself. Rafael's litany is a great example of how good men can put out good work even in unfavorable or hostile times.
Another note: the word "litany" comes from the Greek λιτή ( litay ) meaning "supplication," which is a fancy word for "beg for help." Sometimes I can only give dignity to others after I admit my own helplessness, my own neediness, my own reality that I – Lancelot Schaubert – am not God, I am only a man and a broken man at that. Life flattens out into this level playing field as soon as we reflect upon our own caches of hidden dependencies. So typically, litanies beg God to show up in power, to show up in the middle of our mess and act. Brennan Manning calls us "beggars at the door of God's mercy" and thought of his ministry as nothing more than "one beggar trying to tell another beggar where to get the bread."
Isaac Bashevis Singer, that author who won the Nobel Prize, clung to this very perspective on prayer:
That's the posture of litany – we beg for God's help because we always need His help.
One last note: this prayer is perfect for someone like me who wrestles with the fear of being forgotten every time I start to write a short story, who wrestles with the fear of being suspected after growing up in a broken home, who wrestles with the fear of being picked last since I'm terrible at sports.
In short, it's a prayer for anyone who has ever sought to be preferred to others. For anyone who has ever withheld dignity from their neighbor in order to look just a little bit better by comparison. For anyone that ever wanted to be first, greatest, or (as one of my former students says) bestest.
My sister-in-law initially shared the litany with me on a car ride to the zoo. She memorized it last summer because she started facing the very same struggles I face. After she finished every line, I couldn't help but say, "Mmmm, that's so good." It's the kind of prayer you savor even while you wonder why prayers for humility sting.
Maybe because you know – deep down – that the last really shall be first.
Here's the prayer: