False humility

From my Thing column this morning (here) I excised, for want of space, and because it would distract from my main argument, a little divagation into “false humility.” It is among the contemporary forms of “virtue signalling” that most annoy me. Women do it more than men, but effeminate men also do it, and I have often thought both might benefit from public correction. They make a show of taking the inferior station, the lesser role, the slighter task, by way of showing that although lower than the gods, they are better than their “equals.” Hidden, or unhidden in each gesture, is a comment on the others: “I am humble therefore you are arrogant.” It is a subtle form of deprecation, that has enduring moral and spiritual consequences.

The example I gave — it has bugged me for years — is women who say, “I am more like Martha,” as if Martha were more humble. This from allusion to the passage in Saint Luke, where Jesus is entertained by the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the house of Lazarus at Bethany. Mary takes her place at Christ’s feet, Martha is doing all the work in the kitchen. Surely gentle reader knows the rest. Martha complains that Mary is not helping, and earns the slapdown from Jesus that has informed the hundred generations of Catholics since that the vita contemplativa is to be preferred to the vita activa.

Today, this is beyond us.

Yes, we can see that Martha has her little foibles — she is a whiner, for instance — but she does get the lunch made, and the wine up from the cellar. Or whatever the arrangements were that day. My mind runs so quickly to the bodegón by the young Velazquez, that I have conflated Martha with the sullen maid of the painter’s foreground, mortaring the ingredients for a fine aioli to go with those handsome fish, while resenting an instruction from her mistress.

Somewhere in the Reformation, or perhaps through Vasari’s Lives, the weight of tradition uncomfortably shifted. We began to appreciate the worth of work, not to the ends of work but as a balance against the demand for “faith alone.” We began to think better of Martha, until this thought mutated into the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. The vita contemplativa became a dispensable afterthought. By now we vex ourselves over unemployment statistics, as if working for a living were an end in itself. But no, as Saint Paul saith, it is a means only to the end of eating. The emphasis should instead be on the compulsion; you do your work or you don’t eat. But man does not live for bread alone.

In the posturing of which I write, Martha is taken for the humbler soul, at the price of embracing her insinuation that Mary is showy and indulgent. And this when, as Jesus counter-insinuates, the reality is the opposite. For it is Mary who is looking up; Martha only looks sideways.

We see this in the Church today. Cardinals like Sarah, and Burke, are attacked with this sort of reasoning — mocked as dandies because e.g. they have dressed properly to celebrate the Mass; or dwelt upon actual biblical teaching, and abiding points of liturgy and doctrine, instead of hopping with the liberal and progressive agenda. We can’t imagine them having “dressed up” to any other purpose than personal ostentation. We despise them for persistently looking up, like Mary.

Even the very Protestant Oswald Chambers’s “My Utmost for His Highest” has been turned upside down, and shaken. We want Mary brought down to Martha’s level. We want a Christ who will take his lunch, then “move on.”