Friday, September 10, 2010



Some Good News

Friday afternoon, September 10, I received word that Morehouse Publishing likes the manuscript I’d sent them and wants to publish it as a book to appear in February 2011! I’m of course delighted, especially because I believe that the book can be of use to a lot of people. The working title is “Walking in Valleys of Darkness: A Benedictine Journey through Troubled Times.” In the book I take five periods or events in my life that involved a lot of pain and struggle, and then reflect on them from the perspective of certain New Testament words. The unique aspect of the book is that the insights are gained by looking at the words in the original Greek of the New Testament, often unearthing nuances that lie hidden behind a translation.

The following reflection is not from the book, but is an example of the technique of unearthing the treasures hidden beneath the Greek text of the New Testament. I chose the topic of “vanity” because it seemed a useful one for me to ponder, having just been told that my publisher loved my latest book and wants to publish it.

On Vanity

I was sitting in the school cafeteria with some of my sophomores. I'd been kidding around in Spanish with one of our Bolivian students when a classmate of his asked,
“Hey, Father Al, how many languages do you speak?”
“Well, let’s see… English, of course, and French, and Spanish.” So far this was all true. I’m fluent in French, and I celebrate mass every Sunday in passable Spanish. I continued, “And Latin and Greek.” I can stumble along after a fashion reading Latin, and can read the Greek New Testament if I have a dictionary nearby, but I certainly don’t “speak” either of them. Then I added, “…and German.” This was a real stretch, since I had only one year of it many years ago and know only some basic tourist phrases and enough vocabulary to guess at the meaning of German book titles. By no stretch of the imagination do I speak German.
“Wow! That’s six languages!”

I decided not to correct the exaggerated opinion of my linguistic prowess, and returned guiltily to my egg salad sandwich. Instead of feeling good about the high opinion the kids had of me, I felt like a fake. While the sophomores moved on to other topics, I was still bothered by my little piece of fraud. Why did I do that? Why couldn’t I have just left it at French and Spanish? Why did I have to throw in German? My egg salad began to taste like dust.

I’m always very conscious of the impression I’m making on people around me. This is a good thing when I’m celebrating mass or giving a talk or standing in front of a roomful of students. But there’s no doubt that at other times I’m too concerned about making a good impression just so that people will think well of me. I suppose a lot of us are like that. The trait has been plaguing us for thousands of years. As far back as 2,500 years ago Aesop poked fun at folks like me in a humorous but tragic fable, "The Ox and the Frog:"


"Father," said a little frog to the big frog sitting by the side of a pool, "I just saw a terrible monster! It was as big as a mountain, with horns on its head, and a long tail, and it had hoofs divided in two."
"Tut, tut, child," said the old frog, "that was only Farmer White's ox. And he really isn't all that big. He may be a little bit taller than me, but I could easily make myself just as wide. Watch!" So he puffed himself out, and puffed himself out, and puffed himself out.
"Was he as big as this?" asked the older frog.
"Oh, much bigger than that," said the younger.
In response, the old one puffed himself up even more, and asked the young one if the ox was as big as that.
"Bigger, Father, bigger," came the reply.

So the frog took more deep breaths, and puffed, and puffed, and swelled, and swelled. Then finally he said, "I'm sure the ox wasn't as big as this."
But at that moment he burst.

Now and then, as I saw in the school lunch room that day, I too can start huffing and puffing right along with the rest, preferring to make a good impression instead of simply being myself.

You're So Huperephanos!

The writers of the New Testament had a word that describes perfectly my behavior with those students in the lunchroom: the Greek word for “vain:” huperēphanos, (hoop-er-ay'-fahn-os). It’s made up of two Greek words: huper, "over, above" and phainō, “to appear.” So this adjective “arrogant, haughty, proud,” means literally wanting to “appear to be above” everyone else.

The desire to "appear above others" is based on the false assumption that what makes me great are my accomplishments, possessions, skills, good looks or other qualities—in short, that my worth depends on how well I measure up against those around me. Advertisers know this about this insecurity of ours and are constantly appealing to our need to be well thought of. According to them, we’re being judged all the time on the basis of our basketball shoes, our wristwatch or our car. If we want to stay ahead of the others then we better drink the right brand of beer, use this brand of shampoo, or brush our teeth with that special toothpaste. Our misplaced efforts at improving our image fly right in the face of the gospel.

According to the New Testament our greatness comes from the fact that each of us is a member of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to save us. Only when we understand the real source of our greatness can we understand who we truly are, and who God is for us. We also come to realize that we already possess enough greatness for hundreds of lifetimes without having to fib about how many languages we speak or otherwise puff ourselves up. Vanity just distracts us from our true greatness and actually makes us something less than what the Lord intends us to be.

The pagan Greek philosophers, having no God who could serve as the source of their greatness, had to manufacture it on their own by living a virtuous life, acting bravely, and generally working hard at being great. For Socrates and Aristotle the Greek adjective “humble,” which the Gospels use to describe Jesus, indicates weakness of spirit, a vice.

The Christian in The Frog Pond

Some of us Christians, forgetting that our greatness comes not from ourselves but from the God who loves us and died to save us, spend our lives competing and comparing, and teaching our children to do the same. Not satisfied with just looking good, we make every effort look better than those around us. Some bizarre and even appalling behavior – from spending more than we can afford on a car or clothes, to sending a phony college transcript as part of a job application – is caused by the need to look better than others.

Sometimes we act as if all of us are living in a big pond filled with silly, vain frogs. We watch one another stealthily out of the corners of our eyes, insecure and afraid that someone else may look bigger or better than we do. Misguided and insecure, we keep huffing away and puffing ourselves up.

We’ve taught ourselves to ignore the occasional loud "Pop!"

For Reflection:

1. Even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would gladly suffer and die just to save you. Spend a few moments meditating on your true greatness: try to really feel that you are God's special, beloved child. Stay with this feeling for awhile.

2. Jesus' invitation "… learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew. 11:29) challenges us to let go of our misguided efforts at greatness. Are there specific situations in which you are tempted you to puff yourself up? Are there certain people you compete against, trying to "appear above" them? Have these temptations changed over the course of time?



  1. Congrats on your book!

  2. Fr. Al,
    Congrats on your new book, just don't take that last huff! Also practice your German in case you get tested.
    Love the pictures that you include.
    FYI, I'm living and sharing my thoughts on passion. Please read and comment on my new blog at, Then if you’d like to read future blogs click on ‘follow’ to receive notifications of new postings. I would greatly appreciate your support.

  3. How ironic that I read this today since I am guilty of doing the same this morning. Today in class I used a sentence in Arabic with a student who is studying Arabic. The class was in awe since I sounded so fluent. Even though in Arabic I said, "I understand a little Arabic, a little." The kids were so amazed that I didn't emphasize in English that I really don't know all that much. Now I am feeling a bit guilty.

    Congratulations on the book! I am really looking forward to reading it.