Only three people have I ever met in person and felt small. Humility is not my greatest strength, but three people each had something about them that reminded me of my many inadequacies. And that is a good thing.
Coach Owenby, my school days basketball coach, had that intimidating testosterone physical presence and demeanor. He simply commanded respect. The ever-present chew of tobacco in his cheek heightened the intimidation. I felt very small in his presence every day.
Professor Meeks, my dissertation advisor, had a similar effect on me but for different reasons. His breadth of reading and his mind simply left me feeling inadequate each time I met with him, not because he tried to but because I realized how woefully ill-prepared I was for the work at hand. He also was incredibly quiet and mild-mannered, traits which only made me more nervous as I struggled to fill the air with words and conversation. Intimidation rained down on me.
Cardinal Ratzinger was the third. Our group of students got a rare privilege of a private audience with the Cardinal when we visited Rome in 1994. He and his staff hosted us for an hourlong reception in a parlor adjacent to his office. His presence could be summed up in one word: gravitas. The man's intellect, his experience, and his devotion to the Church made me feel small in comparison. His gravitas, saturated with an oddly soft grace, left a lasting impression on me.
I wonder how President Obama felt on Friday when he met Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) in person. The President does not strike me as one who feels small very often. Frankly, he comes across as one who resists recognizing his own inadequacies as evidenced by the multiplicity of mammoth initiatives he is putting forth all at the same time (from nationalized universal health care, to “re-setting” America's international image, to reforming financial markets, to “saving” the automobile industry, to borrowing and spending at a record level in the name of “stimulus,” just for starters). The breadth and urgent pace of his agenda has led some of his most passionate supporters, like Colin Powell, to caution him about the dangers of trying to do too many large things at once. A feeling of inadequacy seems to be the least of our President's interests.
So, my hope is that Obama's meeting with the Pope accomplished at least one thing: to make our President feel small, if only for a moment. An occasional dose of our own mortal inadequacy is healthy for us all. It keeps things in perspective.