When I was a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I remember a very specific time that I went over to my grandparents house with my sister to stay for the weekend. In those days I wanted to be an ornithologist and so I was obsessed with knowing everything about every type of bird I would see. That day I recall having with me an Audubon birdwatcher’s guide. My grandfather and my sister were having an intense conversation in the sitting room, but my grandfather told me to give him updates on all of the birds in the yard and he gave me a pad and pen to keep notes. Every time I popped in the room with a fresh update, he very patiently listened with eager expressions of amazement, saying things like: “Wow!” “You’re kidding?” “Really?” “You saw that? How do I get them to visit our yard more?”
I also remember very distinctly what this exchange felt like. This stately older man, who would speak with my father using an incomprehensible vocabulary, was actually learning from me. I felt absolutely immense, and immensely important to this larger than life man who did not know something I did. And the fact that both he and I felt joy in my little mission to rectify that deficiency has always remained, for me, his life’s greatest lesson to me.
The Archbishop of New Orleans celebrated the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit two years ago at the seminary and preached a fantastic homily.
The refrain of his homily was, “I don’t know.”
He began with the story of a young man he knew who was dying of terminal cancer. The man was married with children, and at the end of his illness the Archbishop was able to have a very moving conversation with the man. The man said that as he approached death, he had become very aware of two painful regrets he had in life. The first was that he had not said “I love you” often enough to his wife and his children, and had not expressed his affection for them often enough with embraces and simple gestures. “But it was this man’s second regret,” Archbishop said, “that I want to focus on.” He continued,
He told me through tears that he had been dishonest most of his adult life, refusing to say, “I don’t know.” He said, “Archbishop, I always had to have it together, look like I was in control and on my game. I couldn’t ever seem weak or ignorant, so I always found a way to be the man in the know. So I was really dishonest. With others, and with myself. Now I see, when I’m no longer in control of anything, and don’t have all the answers for my children who don’t understand why I have to go away forever. I see now that being honest and vulnerable is what it really means to be human. I wish I hadn’t learned this so late in the game.”
My brother seminarians, do you see what he is saying here? He is saying to all of us: Don’t wait to learn.
The Archbishop then commended to the seminarians the example of Socrates’ learnèd ignorance. “This, my brothers, is the wisdom of knowing what you don’t know. The humility of freely admitting your ignorance and having the desire to remedy it.” He continued, “You probably know the story of the time Socrates met a man famed in Athens for his learning. But Socrates at once saw that this man’s arrogance, and realzied that this gave Socrates a distinct advantage. ‘It seems,’ Socrates said, ‘that I am wiser than you to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ My brothers, a life filled with honest questions, questions that are actually open to answers, is a life marked with humility and wonder. And let me say with great emphasis: We need priests with wonder and with humility!”
The Archbishop ended with these remarks:
To gain this wisdom, we must approach God first by heartily confessing our ignorance — dare I say, our stupidity. Ask Him to illumine your blind spots and kindle your desire to learn. Ask Him for the humility to learn from others what He wishes, which is often — if we take the Old Testament prophets seriously — to learn from people we don’t want to learn from. Only then can we be genuinely formed by His grace.
I pray each day that God inform me of my weaknesses so they can serve my ministry and not hinder it. But I always add, “But be gentle with me, Lord!” Now that’s a prayer God infallibly answers! [laughter] I invite you, my brothers, to join me in that prayer. Ask God to reveal your weakness to you and then teach you how to turn that weakness into humility.
Today is the birth of God in the flesh. In Christ we discover the Most High is a God who, though omniscient, loves to learn from His children about the wonders He has done. How astonishing are the heights of His humility and the riches of His poverty! As Chesterton said, “It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).