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Examining the holiness of Holy Week

Faith can be the 'prelude to discovering new life'

Examining the holiness of Holy Week
Fr. Michael Kelly, Bangkok

April 14, 2014

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The recent casual remark of a friend got me to thinking about how people experience Easter differently. My friend and I discussed something Christians are constantly encouraged to consider, especially during Lent and which gets its highest profile in the Christian calendar on Good Friday: humility.

The way I have come to discover what humility might be is through being humiliated. In the tradition of spirituality I have learned to love – that coming from St. Ignatius Loyola – humility and humiliation are related experiences.

And I’ve found my own and others’ most common reaction to real humiliation is not the anger, rage and indignation that frequently precede rebellion. I have found at the base of humiliation is actually dismay and confusion – about the hurts inflicted or the reversals and disappointments suffered. And, if I’ve brought the humiliation on myself, the experience of shame at what I’ve said or done is not slow in arriving.

My friend, a woman with a lot of experience as a psychotherapist, brought me up short. She told me my take on humility and humiliation was the account of a very male way of meeting the experience. Women experience humility and humiliation very differently, she said. And a little thought will tell us men why.

Too often women are the subjects of humiliation. They are humiliated by the beliefs, practices and convictions that are so common among men of all nations and cultures. They come down to judgments on externals –  their looks and attractive features that “sexualize” male perceptions; the often unacknowledged assumption that women are simply not able to measure up to the performance standards of men.

Such humiliation is rarely directly inflicted or in spoken words. It comes in looks, gestures and movements or simply in the way a conversation flows. Women are only good for a few things and one of them is satisfying an urge in men.

It is humiliating in a completely different way to the manner in which humiliation is mostly experienced by men. And it is intensified in Asian societies where caste, ethnic origins, birth parents, tribal membership and even the geographic location of home play a part.

In Asia, of course, such bases for negative judgments apply across genders. And they generally lead to that feeling of resigned powerlessness that becomes self-fulfilling.

In many parts of Asia, such undeclared humiliations frequently register among the humiliated as a “loss of face”, the feeling of embarrassment at the diminishment inflicted, consciously or unconsciously, on someone whose status, achievements or dignity have been slighted.

Reactions to humiliation vary from fatalistic endurance to rebellion. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet put the choice starkly –  to endure “the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune or, by opposing, end them”. The choices are knuckle down to this: take the blow on the chin, offer no resistance and say “ there’s nothing I can do about it,” or get serious about settling the score, rebel and dissent, eliminate the offending enemy.

Or there is another way. In good faith, a person can recognize a great injustice has been done and there is little that can be done to undo it. In good faith, a person can say something is stupid, wrong and unreasonable about which every effort to alter the situation has been made. But those efforts have failed.

Failure can congeal in bitterness or it can be the prelude to discovering new life. For that to happen the humiliated person has to be freed from the hurt, shame and demoralizing he or she experiences.

That’s what is holy about Holy Week. It takes us to the heart of unmerited, abusive humiliation and how to make it a triumph. No good deed may go unpunished as the old saying has it. But that’s not the end of the story

Too many Catholics associate “holiness” with places like churches and shrines, even though Jesus said quite plainly, and was killed for repeating it, that true holiness was displayed in service, and real worship is in “spirit and truth,” not in events that occur in “sacred” places.

Too many Catholics associate “holiness” with ecclesiastical or religious status when it was Jesus’ own protests about the abuse of their decision-making status by the chief priests and elders of his time that saw him executed. That’s what we celebrate this Friday.

Holiness is discovered neither in the security of places nor the comfort of statuses but in an active engagement with the living God, to be found in our hearts and in our world, especially in those humiliated and disregarded. It’s what makes this week holy.

Jesuit Fr. Michael Kelly is the executive director of

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