How well do you take a compliment? Do you cringe and deflect the praise, or do you hunger and fish for more? Or perhaps you receive the laud with a simple, “Thank you,” and go on with your day? Many people, who recognize the value of humility, struggle with its practical application and are often disturbed by compliments, as though the mere reception of kudos — regardless of the manner in which they are received — were itself prideful. Yet a fuller understanding of what a compliment is and how it speaks to our relationship with God, will help us to receive one without compunction or pride.
As the touchstone for this discussion, let us consider a passage from Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation: “The humble man receives praise the way a clean window takes the light of the sun. The truer and more intense the light is, the less you see of the glass.” That is to say, glass, in its simplest form, is not designed to draw attention to itself. For instance, one does not install a clear pane of glass in a window in order to look at the glass. Rather, one does so in order to look at what lies beyond the glass. Similarly, we must endeavor to be the clear pane of glass through which others may see the Light of Christ.
The representation of a mediator-for-God as glass is certainly not novel, but is rooted in Scripture. For instance, consider when Christ says “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12) and when St. Paul writes “Now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul recognizes that, for some reason, we are not now receiving a full vision of Christ’s Light. Consequently, just as bright light appears dim when seen through dark glass, the world must be so ordered that we get some obfuscated vision of Christ through imperfect media.
In the twelfth century, the imagery of Christ as Light and the world as mediating glass became physically manifested in the stained glass windows of Gothic architecture. As Abbot Suger (the founder of the first Gothic cathedral, Saint Denis) wrote concerning the various colored panes of stained glass windows, “…because of my delight in the beauty of the house of God [i.e., the Cathedral of Saint Denis], the multicolor loveliness of the gems [i.e., the panes of stained glass] has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation, transporting me from material to immaterial things, has persuaded me to examine the diversity of holy virtues, then I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one.” Here, Suger illustrates how earthly beauty can be a means to contemplate divine beauty. The materials of the world are windows to God’s Light.
St. Bonaventure offers a more detailed explanation of this theory in The Journey of the Mind to God, writing that we may ascend “into God …on the sight of Him through His vestiges [vestigio: literally, footprints] in the universe.” Elsewhere, Bonaventure continues that we see God “as through a glass [per speculum] and as in a glass [in speculo]” (cf. Colossians 1:16). That is to say, Christ has left His vestiges (footprints) in the materials of the world, and we may know Christ in those vestiges and can be led to Him through those footprints.
This theme of “in and through” is particularly helpful for people, who are made in the image and likeness of God. It instructs us that others may get some glimpse of God in us and in our works, and, consequently, others may be led to God through us and through our works. In that sense, every person is potentially an icon of God, a most efficacious window to the divine. For, if a mere stained glass window can elevate the mind to contemplation of God’s transcendent beauty, how much more can the beauty and good works of a person bear a true (or, shall we say, clear) witness to Christ’s Light and Love!
Which brings us back to the subject of compliments…
A compliment is one person’s praise of another’s attributes or actions. It can be elicited, unwanted, or unsaid. And there is always a danger that it may inflate the ego of the proud, or prick the conscience of the scrupulous. Both of these reactions stem from the same root, which is a conceited conception of the human person as the sole object of the compliment. Ultimately, this is a matter of humility.
As Thomas Aquinas noted, “humility” derives from “humus,” meaning grounded in the earth. A humble person, then, is one who is grounded, who is properly oriented in relation to the rest of creation and to the Creator. In the context of a compliment, the humble person knows himself to be a window to Christ.
Consider a scenario in which someone, John, does a good job at work, and his boss, Jane, consequently praises him in front of the entire office. If John is trying to live humbly, he may feel uncomfortable upon being praised by Jane in front of his colleagues. This may be because he thinks himself unworthy of the compliment or because he thinks all reception of praise is de facto prideful. John feels this way because he does not yet have a full grasp of humility. If he did, he would know, first, that Jane’s compliment is well deserved and that there is absolutely no need to feel guilty because of it. Second, he would know that by her compliment, Jane praises not only John, but also God. For John’s good work elicits a compliment from Jane, evincing that she — whether knowingly or otherwise — sees some small vision of God in John and through his work that is deserving of praise. If John were humble, Jane’s compliment would pass through him to God, like light through a window. In a word, Jane’s praise for John would become Jane’s praise for God.
As to the practical logistics of how to receive and respond to a compliment, following specific instructions would make one seem disingenuously humble. Humility, when earnestly attained, begets in the humble a charitable demeanor which no third-party advice alone can produce. Therefore, if you struggle with taking compliments — and many many do — thank God that He has chosen you to be the medium in and through which others see Him, and pray that you may one day accept that blessing with true humility.
~ Matthew Dernbach