Expert Service


My cousin went into labor earlier this week with her firstborn. It was almost thirty years ago that she and I planned our weddings, and named our daughters-to-be and imagined them growing up together sort of how we had ourselves.


As I drove the two hours to the hospital where she delivered, with my own baby just a few months older than hers, I had lofty visions of myself as Mary, rushing to the hill country to assist her cousin Elizabeth. I was going to be of service! After all, I have been through labor six times, so I could help her and doula her, and spare her all the pain. Labor is something I know quite well.


Of course, she knew it pretty well too, having been a labor nurse all those years I was home having kids. But anyway, I was drawn on by lofty visions of serving like Mary. Or rather, offering my expert services.


When I arrived, she had been laboring for a very long time without progress, and it was becoming clear that she would likely require a Cesarean Section. It didn’t take long to assess the situation, to realize that all I could do was visit for a little while before she got some much needed rest, and was taken back for the surgery. My expert services were not required, of course, since no one can go through labor for you.


Though I wouldn’t say I was humbled in that moment. I still wanted to be there when she came to. I wanted to see her see her baby the first time. Since she had to be totally put under for the surgery, we met her baby a couple hours before she did. I wanted to nurse the baby, though that was not allowed. I wanted to put the baby in her arms, though that was the role of her husband.


As I drove home later that day, assessing the situation in hindsight, it became clear that what I went there looking for was a starring role in her birth story. It was not to be.


Instead I went home to prepare for a party at my house. Several weeks earlier she had asked me to host a party at my house for her baby’s dedication. My house was centrally located to the church and the rest of the family. The yard is big and kid friendly. All I would have to do is clean it, and her mom would bring all the food. It was an easy thing to do, and I willingly agreed.


But the time was coming to pay the piper. I had to clean my house. I hate cleaning my house. It never lasts. It gets really dirty with all these people. The cleaning has to be perfectly timed, close enough to the party that it won’t get filthy again before people arrive, and yet early enough that I get it all done. Cleaning my house is not how I wanted to be of service.


Whenever we talk about the Visitation of Mary to her cousin, we always talk about her going to offer humble service. This morning was the first time it hit me that humble service is actually the service you don’t especially want to do.


I’m a very willing servant in certain things. I have a lively imagination about bringing my bed-ridden cousin trays of breakfast, or putting on the blood-pressure cuff. But often the service one would like to offer is not the service that is required. Humble service means there’s nothing in it for you. There’s no reward. There’s no glorious memory. That’s what makes it humble.


About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Lisa Schmidt

    What a lovely reflection and insight, Elizabeth. Also reminds me of the story told in Mark 10 – The Blind Bartimaeus. Jesus asks a desperately seeking Bartimaeus a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Am I willing to ask the same question of people reaching out to me … and then actually follow through and humbly serve in the manner they have asked?

    • Bill S

      Do you believe these stories to be true? Or do you think the evangelists were simply recording legends passed down by word of mouth with the usual embellishments that accompany religious zeal? Who was the eyewitness to Luke’s story about Mary?

  • Humble on my terms

    Ouch. Love this. Thank you.

  • Deacon James Pearce

    That is a wonderful story, Elizabeth, and I agree that you did, indeed, provide humble service to your sister and to all of the family. Your humble service allowed the family to do what it was supposed to do and celebrate the birth of the new baby. Humble service does often mean doing what we don’t want to do. I wouldn’t say, though that “Humble service means there’s nothing in it for you. There’s no reward. There’s no glorious memory. That’s what makes it humble.”

    I was challenged similarly a while ago, and with the help of a good priest, came to see that in humble service, it isn’t that we don’t receive anything. We might or might not receive anything, but it is whether we _seek_ anything or not that matters. If we are doing the service because it is needed, whether we are receiving something or not, without expecting anything for it, then it is humble.

  • Karyn

    Isn’t motherhood a good practice in humble servitude? I always picture motherhood as “big events” like baptism, First Communions, weddings to wonderful spouses, and of course, them visiting at Thanksgiving and telling me what a great job I did raising them, lol! But most of motherhood is doing yet another load of laundry and making yet another meal and cleaning yet another poopy bottom. I have St Augustine’s quote on my wall – “May I believe that that glory may dwell in the commonest task of every day.”