In the Footsteps of St. Philip Neri, Onward and Awkward!
‘As patience leads to peace, and study to science, so are humiliations the path that leads to humility.’ —St. Bernard of Clairvaux
I’d been invited to the party only because Jean felt sorry for me. At the time, Jean and I were both freshmen at Columbia University. Jean was the daughter of a diplomat; I was a socially inept Bronx girl. My first choice for college had been Fordham University, a Catholic institution just down the street from my home, and on whose campus I had taken walks from the time I was a child. Fordham University was my “safe space.” I’d imagined myself as a student there, confident and clever, my awkwardness having vanished like an elevated train into the city landscape. But I ended up at Columbia, where everything felt foreign. Jean knew that I was struggling, so one day she stopped me in the quad.
She was planning a get-together, she said. It would be held in her family’s apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. Would I like to come?
I would! In fact, I even bought an outfit just for the occasion: a pair of black wedge shoes and a Gunne Sax prairie dress. The night of the party, I took a seat among a dozen fellow students who were sitting in a circle on tastefully mismatched chairs. There were sodas, snacks and banter all around, and although I was too self-conscious to actually say anything, I was quietly reveling in a new and exciting feeling of belonging.
Then came The Incident.
I don’t remember what the guests were doing right before it happened. Maybe we were playing a boisterous party game, or perhaps someone had just cracked a funny joke. Whatever the reason, I’d thrown back my head in an exuberant movement that shifted my center of gravity, causing my chair to tip backwards with me still in it. Flat on my prairie-dressed back, and with the soles of my black wedges facing the ceiling, I looked every bit like folklore’s pioneer woman “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” who “showed her bare legs to the whole wagon train.” To make matters worse, for a full five minutes after my spill, one of the other party guests was — I’m not exaggerating — processing the incident by facepalming with alternating hands while repeating “Oh, how awkward!”
Awkward? Yes. And I believed it was all my fault. I blamed my clumsiness, my carelessness, even my less-than-graceful head toss. It was a long time before I stopped reproaching myself — time that would have been better spent in reflection on the second part of the divine commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In order to “love yourself,” it’s important to remember that God loved you first, and without any regard for your level of lovableness. So while I may have been the least sophisticated person at Jean’s party, I was by no means the lesser. As God’s child, I was on an equal footing with everyone else, even if that footing was spectacularly lost for a brief moment!
That party took place 44 years ago. Since then, I’ve learned an important lesson: that imperfection can be a blessing. Our failures, foibles and awkwardness have a purpose, and when we come to accept our flaws, we grow in the sweet humility that draws us closer to God. St. Philip Neri was so convinced of this that he used to feign eccentricities just so people would hold him in low esteem. He would wear his clothes inside out, celebrate Mass in ungrammatical Latin, and have a fellow priest read aloud to him from a joke book. You can bet that, had St. Philip ever found himself at a hoity-toity soirée, he would have deliberately tipped his chair and faceplanted.
To err is human. To embrace our mistakes in humility leads us to the Divine.
“Siate umili, state bassi.” (“Be humble, be lowly.”) —St. Philip Neri