Rev. Dn. Gary Alexander Delivers 2017 Convocation Address
On Thursday, September 7, 2017, Hellenic College Holy Cross held its annual Academic Convocation. Rev. Dn. Gary Alexander, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Planning at HCHC, gave the keynote address. The entire text of his speech is below.
Humility as the Core of Leadership
Rev. Dn. Gary D. Alexander, MDiv, JD
I want to offer my thoughts to you today about an issue that is near to my heart—something that I have to work at constantly, and that you might also think about making the core of your life—living a life of humility. After spending close to 17 years working at the highest levels of government, my life has been tested in many ways—none more, though, than testing my humility or lack thereof. Now, working with governors, members of Congress, and presidential candidates can sound glamorous, and even exhilarating. On many levels it is; but there is no more glorious life than to be chosen as a disciple of Jesus—whether you are a doctor, lawyer, song artist, architect or, by God’s providence, a priest. It is clear to me, and I hope that if it hasn’t become clear to you it will, that the only way to true discipleship is by knowing who you are and having the right relationship with our God.
Throughout Scripture and especially the Gospels, humility—establishing that right relationship with God—is front and center. One of the more intriguing passages comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew (15:21-28). As Jesus and his apostles journeyed throughout northern Israel, the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman from that region approached them crying: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” Even though Jesus heard her, he did not say a word to her. St. John Chrysostom in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew tells us that He did not answer her because He knew the great treasure that His grace would reveal from within her soul. His silence wasn’t to ignore her, but so that she would persevere and through persistence build humility which would “reveal the treasure laid up in her”—that of manifesting the light of Christ in her to know her relationship with God.
She most likely kept persisting until she was heard. For that reason, the apostles, probably annoyed at her, approached Jesus and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” Jesus then answered the woman saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman was persistent. She continued to seek out Jesus and finally knelt before Him saying, “Lord, help me.” Even though the text doesn’t elaborate, we can imagine that, just like in other encounters Jesus had with those who were suffering, he was moved with pity and compassion for her plea.
Jesus finally answered her using imagery that most would perceive as derogatory: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This was a refashioning of his earlier statement to her that he had come only for the children of Israel. But it also sent a genial signal to her that He was open to her plea. The woman quickly comprehended what he meant and with confidence and humility she responded directly saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
As Chrysostom seems to indicate, the Canaanite woman’s experience with Christ was a process that led her to comprehending her place under the children of Israel. She did not feel slighted but felt that the Lord had provided her with an opportunity. Chrysostom says that Jesus delayed His response to her so that she would have to earn her virtue of humility, teach all of us a lesson on how to obtain this virtue. Once earned, she merited a spot with the children of Israel. Her persistence, faith, and humility showed Jesus that she deserved the gift she requested. Jesus provided her with a great tribute when He responded to her by saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” Perseverance and persistence built humility in her which, as Chrysostom said, revealed the treasure laid up in her—that of truly knowing her relationship with God.
What does a story like this mean for our humility? It shows us that we are far from the faith and humility of the Canaanite woman, especially if this is the bar. How do we begin to address our own lack of humility? Our very first step should be to open our hearts and offer a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit, the giver of life: O Holy Spirit, giver of life, make me humble so that I may be made worthy to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
But, how do we become humble to actually live the life of Christ to the best of our ability? If we want to follow His footsteps, we will need to fully comprehend and embrace his core values and actually wear his persona. His life must become our life and His Spirit must seep into every nook and cranny of our existence—we must want to truly become Christ-like.
The New Testament provides us with many powerful examples and directions to guide our formation:
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12). The humble will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5), will enjoy eternal salvation (Matt 18:1-3) and enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:6). Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly (ταπεινοῖς). Do not be wise in your own estimation. (Rom 12:16) But he gives greater grace. That is why Scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.” (ταπεινοῖς) (Jas 4:6) Finally, Jesus asks us to take His yoke upon us and learn from HIM. Why? Because he is meek and humble of heart (ταπεινός). We must wear this yoke, live it, breathe it, and act it to find true peace and rest for our souls. (Matt 11:29)
But what exactly does Jesus mean when he calls us to humble ourselves and live with a humble heart? We discover from the Greek word tapeinos (ταπεινός), which means humble or to become humble, becoming low or actually small. The word signifies being inclined toward the earth—even physically kissing the ground in prostration—(something quite common in the early liturgies) and bowing before the Master. It is in fact a prostration of the heart—of our entire spiritual being—to become totally dependent on the Lord. This dependence on the Lord conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others and a true sense of unworthiness. Pride gives us a selfish sense of our own pleasure based on our own achievements and it elevates us above God and others. Humility, however, is an honest and realistic understanding of who and what we are, especially before God.
It leads us to recognize how small we are before God. The saints and Church Fathers experience great joy in becoming low and small before God, and proclaiming that to become partakers of the divine life, God must increase in us and our human frailty—that which makes us “unlike” God—must decrease.
Humility is based on the right view of who we are. Simply, it’s knowing how small and frail we actually are and how great and large God actually is. It is vital that we advise ourselves that all the good that comes our way comes to us because of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the Romans Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness….and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) This intercession by the Spirit fills us with the grace to know our place in God’s kingdom and the bounty He has bestowed upon us no matter where we are in life’s journey.
It is this grace given to us by the Holy Spirit that allows us to attain the divine life and gives us the opportunity to have a future life living in the heavenly Jerusalem, in the abode of angels, where Enoch and Elijah live dove-like in old age. (Requiem)
Make no mistake about it, though. This is not easy. Our world and culture are built on obtaining power, accolades, and climbing the corporate ladder. Our secular world looks at humility and lowliness with disdain and sees it as a weakness. People can and do become addicted to power and praise just like a drug. But like a drug, this type of power or praise isn’t permanent and you need to keep feeding yourself until finally you lose yourself. Putting personal glory aside also may not seem natural because this power feels good, albeit temporarily. Of course, developing Christ-like humility can be painful because it detaches us from our worldly desire to seek personal glory and praise. Our relationships with others and God become damaged because all we do is think of our next conquest.
In order to avoid this road however, you will need to oppose the way of this world and take on the mind of Jesus. Jesus created a path for you that focuses on a greater power that places a premium on doing the will of God the Father and His power of service, love, and charity. Why did Jesus create this path? Not to prevent us from gaining all of these worldly goodies, but so that we would see them for what they truly are: empty. Empty without God. The fruit of humility leads to intimacy. Intimacy is built on putting things in the right order where we build God-like relationships with other human beings and live in harmony with God. This is exactly what Christ meant when He said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” (John 14:27) It is a struggle for us to strive for this type of perfection because it is God-like. But the struggle to strive for it is worth it. Because by practicing Christ’s humility and enjoying His intimacy, you will become like Him, and He will take notice. How awesome is that?
The saints give us the greatest examples of this life of humility and what it means. In the life of St. Antony the Great, a Christian monk from Egypt, there is a story that God, through a vision, showed him the world with the lures and traps that Satan had prepared for human beings. After seeing this, the monk was scared and asked God; Lord, who can escape all of these traps? Antony heard a voice saying, Only he who is humble can escape these traps, because God provides his grace to the humble and those who are lowly and meek, but the proud always fall into Satan’s traps. But, Satan does not attempt to attack a humble human being. Now, Satan tempted Antony on numerous occasions and he struggled with these temptations just like you. Should he follow Satan? He was only able to overcome these battles through intense prayer, which made him increase in humility and live intimately with God.
This story of St. Antony makes it clear that humility is not only a matter of turning away from pride, self-centeredness, and arrogance, the sins that are the greatest obstacle to living a life as a disciple of Christ, but living a life that sees power and authority made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:19)
Just think about the Canaanite woman. Because she earned her humility, she understood her place next to the chosen people of Israel. Her humility gave her the strength to persevere, prostrate herself, and become low and meek before Jesus even though it could be perceived that she was rejected. Because she understood that power is made perfect in weakness, her humility and persistence obtained for her and her child a great blessing from God. And, as Chrysostom said, “It revealed the treasure laid up in her.”
Let me be clear: humility has nothing to do with being feeble, shy, ambivalent, and weak. A humble person also does not vacillate. A humble person lets his no be no and his yes be yes. (Matt 5:37) For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, writes St. Paul, but a spirit of power. (2 Tim 1:7) True humility also is not opposed to seeking personal advancement or enjoying professional achievements or honor, as long as they are Christ-centered, rooted in the love of the Holy Trinity, sacrificed for the glory of God, filled with charity, and accomplished without showing off. Only then will this personal achievement become compatible with Christ’s deep humility.
Humility forces us to be fully aware of the talents our Lord has given us and without losing a right intention, want to offer them back to God. Humility demands that we proclaim what the chronicler tells us to say in I Chronicles: “For all things come from thee, and of thy own have we given thee. (1 Chr 29:14)
Humility neutralizes and resists the spiritually abnormal habit to boast about our achievements and think that we alone are admirable and special. It provides us with wise moderation and inner spiritual direction so that we can unleash the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are embedded in every human heart. Only then can we direct to God the desires of adoration, praise and glory. And, as the Psalmist says, Not to us, O Lord, but to You be all glory due. (Ps 115:1)
What can happen to us if we aren’t conscious of our weakness and we don’t act like the Canaanite woman?
We actually make God smaller and suppress Him and pride takes over. Darkness fills our lives and we become arrogant, living a corrupted life contrary to our baptism. This life not only leads to personal suffering but it inflicts pain on those around us and even those we cannot see. Many times it leads to suffering toward those to whom we are supposed to bring the light of Christ.
A great example from the Old Testament where pride and a love of power overtake a leader of faith provides us with great insight. This story is embedded in my mind because throughout my tenure leading large government agencies, I kept it open on my desk to keep me grounded in my faith in the One True God. It is the story of Uzziah, King of Judah. King Uzziah reigned during the 8th century BC for forty-two years during the height of Judah’s power. He assumed the throne at the tender age of 16 and grew up under the spiritual tutelage of his mother and a prophet of the time named Zechariah. During his early years under the powerful spiritual direction of both his mother and Zechariah, Uzziah seemed to believe in God and be filled with faith. The Chronicler in 2 Chronicles says that as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper. He became wealthy, powerful, and built Judah, even creating new machinery that led to great new projects. During all of this, however, he began to focus on himself and his own achievements rather than God. As his name grew in popularity—even as far as Egypt, his pride grew and he made a conscious decision to love himself and his power more than God.
The Chronicler who wrote the Chronicles tells of the demise of Uzziah:
His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful. But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord…..Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.”
Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him.
King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house—leprous, and banned from the temple of the Lord. (2 Chron 26:15-21)
As we are told, his love for himself and his power and fame made him forget the importance of God and thus led to his demise. In the beginning, Uzziah was on the right track, but like some of us he “came off the track” and because of his ego and love of self he couldn’t get back on. He couldn’t turn back to the light and knowledge of God. He no longer made himself “low” and humble. By turning inward, he lost the chance to attain a genuine right relationship with God. He never developed true humility and thus he never became intimate with his God and the people he was entrusted to protect.
The Chronicler seems to indicate that while making his way to the top, he ceased searching out the Lord and living a life of prayer; and he ended his relationship with the prophet Zechariah. Many leaders, whether in government, business, or sadly even in His Church choose this path of pride over humility, anger over love, and oppression over mercy. As people gain more accolades, praise, and greater power, they begin to act like Uzziah and make themselves the focus of life rather than placing Christ at the head. They never allow themselves to become intimate with God. When we are totally self-centered we become blind to the true joy which Christ gave us in His Holy Spirit. Those individuals who become totally dependent on themselves are happy only when they are in control. They cling to themselves like a person holding an anchor and throwing it into the water and not letting go. What is so perplexing is that these people keep moving further and further away from true happiness. Further and further away from the perfect love of Christ.
Uzziah’s example is made even clearer to us in the Book of Proverbs, which tells us that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom (Prov 11:2) and that destruction results from pride (Prov 16:18). I encourage you to read and meditate on Uzziah’s full story in 2 Chronicles 26 over and over again until it becomes part of your biblical contemplation on humility. Trust me. Remembering a story like this can have a positive impact on your spiritual growth.
Think of those in your own life whom you have met who are humble. Humble people don’t need to be praised or flattered because they are totally focused on the Lord’s poverty and humility and they believe that God is the source of all happiness. Indeed it is a struggle for these people, but their focus on the divine mercy of Jesus keeps them grounded in the selfless love of the Triune God.
Humility does not exist in loathing oneself but in loving God and His creation more than ourselves and realizing that we have gained nothing by ourselves; it has all come from our Creator. It allows us to truly receive God’s power and become children of God, who receive strength based on the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (John 1:12) Humility is truly realizing that we are indeed sick and in need of our divine physician to cure us
How do we practice to achieve humility—this establishing of a right relationship with God?
First, spend time with the person you love the most. No, not your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend. Spend time with Jesus—your true love. Speak to Him. Bare your soul to Him, meditate on His scourging at the pillar, Passion, Crucifixion and by considering His glory even in the humiliation He endured. Also—witness His humility in the Holy Eucharist where He invites you to commune with Him. This will grow your friendship with Him exponentially. It is in the Eucharist that we truly see not just His glory but how lowly and meek He becomes. And how through this meekness He consumes us with His unquenchable fire even though we approach Him with our own sea of transgressions, just as He did to Isaiah with the live burning coal offered with tongs. (Isa 6) This is why, in eating His body and drinking His blood, you must become what you eat, and only then will you attain this right relationship with God.
Second, pray for the Holy Spirit—the giver of life, to change your heart, for it is impossible to do it in our own strength. Remember, by opening your whole being to the Spirit of God, your life can be transformed. The more He quenches our thirst, the thirstier we become. For as St. Paul says, “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:14)
Third, we will learn about humility if we focus on and pray to the Theotokos, the handmaid of the Lord, whose sole goal was to do God’s will—for intercession. She can motivate us to practice the virtue of humility—becoming low like the Canaanite woman, to achieve the grace of God—fully dependent on her Son.
Why do we turn to Mary? First, she is the greatest example we have of faith and humility that we possess. When her cousin Elizabeth, moved by the Holy Spirit, greets Mary by saying, “Blessed is she who believed.” Mary replies with her Song of Praise, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:45-48) God experienced Mary’s humility and, filling her with grace, poured out His love on the world for us.
Second, Mary is full of grace. Go to her often. Be persistent in your relationship with her and be open to listening to her spiritual direction. Mary will take your petition to Jesus who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” and it will be heard. (Jas 4:6) When you communicate with the Mother of God, the one person who carried the Word of God in her womb you will obtain incredible strength—more than any earthly throne or amount of money could ever give you. Remember that Mary’s petitions have such strength because she, unlike anyone else, petitions Jesus as His mother and she never fails to have pity on the most unfortunate of our circumstances. By developing this intimate relationship with Mary, she will teach you humility and to say over and over, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) If you haven’t built an intimate relationship with Mary, I urge you to begin right away. It’s a life changer.
Finally, in every act—here at school, your relationships with your friends and family and with complete strangers—bring your relationship with Jesus into your relationship with others. Within each relationship be filled with holiness and charity—cheerful and attractive, so that it will draw others to Christ. This will move you personally and those you touch closer to a right relationship with God so that you can achieve the joy and crown of the Canaanite woman and avoid the destruction of Uzziah.
To all of the students, faculty, and administrators of this Spirit-filled institution: work hard and great success you will achieve. Keep in mind, however, that the greatest success you can achieve isn’t money, titles, big homes, or fancy cars. It’s cooperating with God’s grace to ensure that you joyfully bring all souls to Jesus.
Humility will teach us to avoid and abhor pride, our deep-rooted weakness, and that which is the greatest impediment to our faith. We must unceasingly petition our Lord to make us humble if we are to receive His grace and attain salvation. But don’t forget. As hard as this seems, Jesus wants you. Remember what He said to the Pharisees just after He called St. Matthew to discipleship. The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus heard this and said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." (Matt 9:9-13) To obtain the humility of Jesus, live a life of mercy, pray hard and pray often, and continuously repeat the words of the psalmist — “You are my Lord, I have no good apart from you.” (Ps 16:2)
May God the Father draw you into His precious Son and may He bless Hellenic College Holy Cross.