Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility

Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin; humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life. And as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.

Let’s consider humility under a number of headings.

I. The Foundation of Humility – Indeed, humility as a foundation is a good image, since by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.

By humility we understand that we are small, poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), we are dependent on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.

And we are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”

Think you have life figured out? Think you can define it? Hmm … Imagine before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged for thousands of years. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me what that is. Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?

And thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.

II. The First Humility – When it comes to humility, we distinguish a humility toward God and a humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.

Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God. For not everything in another person is superior to us; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.

But indeed, our first humility is toward God. And by it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. But even more, no good work of ours, not even the slightest salutary act, can happen without the grace of God. This is the first humility.

III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that neither do we have meaning, direction or purpose apart from God. And thus we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.

Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense. They hold that everything that has happened is by chance, a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). But even atheists cannot seem to accept or live by their radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to really live in a meaningless world. And he died insane.

But for us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what God has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what God teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.

IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, and narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and resistant to what we know is good. Our wills are inconsistent, vacillating, whimsical, and yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little we think we know it all. Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.

V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). For indeed, our neighbor has many things from God that are to be respected. They have things which we share, but also many things that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts; you do not have all the gifts; but together we have all the gifts. But we have them all only by mutual respect and humble submission. And thus our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us, and of our completion.

But note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches in regard to humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery, or rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and suffer because of it.

Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the Apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God, and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse or overrule the humility due to God.

Therefore the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected, because humility always regards the truth.

VI. The Focus of Humility – And that lead us finally to a kind of focal statement about humility: “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.

And what is the truth? You are gifted, but incomplete.

Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts. But note this: they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you. And most often, He gave them to you through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to attain the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So you do have gifts. But they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)

But though you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. And this is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. For whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all the gifts or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.

Ok, admit it, true humility is tough. And if you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?

Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):

1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,

2. to grieve on account of it,

3. to confess it,

4. to convince others to believe this,

5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,

6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and

7. to love being thus treated

In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?

15 Replies to “Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility”

  1. ‘I do not have all the gifts; you do not have all the gifts; but together we have all the gifts.’ This is the Church, that together the Church bears the gifts of GOD. We should stand together to clash with and fight against the winds and onslaught of this so called modernism and relativism which is destroying the very fabric of our society, the family. In humility, we accept this world’s attack on our very personhood but in integrity and dignity we profess that this world will not destroy our faith. For GOD’s Love is total, irrevocable and immense for each of us and in gratitude we return it to HIM and those who are in need. In humility, we declare we are the children of GOD! YHWH ADONAI ELOHIM.

  2. Hello! I lack extensive Roman Catholic apologetic and theological education and training. Keeping this in mind, I do have questions regarding St. Anselm’s 7 degrees of humility. My intent is not to be facetious, but have the intent of acquiring more understanding on this matter. St. Anselm’s list appears to be very self deprecating and appear on first glance to border on masochism. For those who have issues with self confidence and esteem, I don’t see how these are going to help such individuals.

    1. Yes, they are tough and not without controversy. especially the last ones. I think it takes a rather high degree of spiritual progress to understand things like these and even more to live them properly lest they be in fact a form of self hatred.

      1. And yet, taken step by step it really boils down to St. Catherine of Siena’s simple but profound statement” “i am nothing, You are everything.

        Compunction brings the constant awareness of how very much we have been forgiven and that we still need every drop of assistance God, through His only begotten Son Jesus Christ can give us. That we are absolutely dependent on the Christ’s mercy. To go beyond that into some deceptive lair of self hatred is the work of satan itself.

        Humility is healthy, life giving and wholesome. Through humility, we are finally able to actually begin looking at the secret and ugly wounds hidden deep within us. To admit before God our responsibility for them and begin the deeper layers of repentance. It is within this shedding of our most cherished self deceptions that humility begins to blossom more fragrantly within us. Thank You Holy Spirit for Your insight and shedding the light of clarity over the lies we tell ourselves.

    2. Perhaps this prayer will help you. It’s the Litany of Humility.

      O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
      From the desire of being esteemed,
      Deliver me, Jesus. (repeat after each line)
      From the desire of being loved,
      From the desire of being extolled,
      From the desire of being honored,
      From the desire of being praised,
      From the desire of being preferred to others,
      From the desire of being consulted,
      From the desire of being approved,
      From the fear of being humiliated,
      From the fear of being despised,
      From the fear of suffering rebukes,
      From the fear of being calumniated,
      From the fear of being forgotten,
      From the fear of being ridiculed,
      From the fear of being wronged,
      From the fear of being suspected,

      That others may be loved more than I,
      Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. (repeat after each line)
      That others may be esteemed more than I ,
      That, in the opinion of the world,
      others may increase and I may decrease,
      That others may be chosen and I set aside,
      That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
      That others may be preferred to me in everything,
      That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,

  3. I wonder, do all who reject God so as to merit an eternity in hell wind up (in hell) as Nietzsche ended up on earth?

  4. Humility can be divided into two kinds: existential and experiential.

    Existential: That we are made of dust, and are vegetative, as well as mixture of animality and rationality.

    Experiential: That we are sinners.

    One reason the Anselm list is difficult is that often the reason someone is held in contempt is for his godliness. For example, the atheist/agnostic Christopher Hitchens had great contempt for blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

  5. Msgr. Pope,
    I have read your blog long enough that I think that I know your answer to this question, but I would like to ask anyway.
    St. Anselm used the word ‘contemptible.'(I am assuming your translation is correct- I could not find the list in Latin.) But it seems that self-contempt is an excess of humility, and contrary to our dignity as adopted children of God. Acknowledging our total dependence on God, and our need for total reliance on His Grace, is not really the same thing as contempt, is it?

  6. I don’t know if this helps, but it seems St. Anselm is simply speaking the Gospel and by “contempt” means our lowliness, unworthiness. St. Thomas points to the parable of the Pharisee, who justified himself before God, and Publican who went home justified because he knew he was unworthy and begged God’s mercy. Earlier, he said to them “You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Lk 16:15) God’s estimation is what matters.

  7. When I know (sometimes in a state of having the “know” buried deep inside) that I am wrong but, do not admit it, then any intageable progress is stalled. Spiritual, intellectual, burning with positive passion, etc. – all are stalled as I wallow in my corruption in a metaphorical, and egotistical, tomb. Much of my life has been wasted in this state.
    When someone, with authourity, forces me to say I’m wrong when I do not believe that I am, indeed, wrong – I’m no better off. I may not be in as bad a state as before the declaration but, partial abscence of deceit is not honesty.
    When I sincerely admit that I am wrong, after having scrutinized all reasonable options to honestly prove that I am actually right, then the door to the, aforementioned, tomb is opened and … the door(s) of opportunity that lie beyond freedom from the tomb are unlocked and await me to dare to open them.
    Thus lies my approach to humility.

    1. It is the only way. For we live our lives wallowing in the mesh of lies about ourselves that we use to hide from ourselves with. The path to true humility is a long and often stony path. And very painful as we learn to face ourselves, not as we wish to be, but who we really are. In spite of all my best efforts step 7 keeps me hanging on to the reality that i ain’t there yet. I have miles to go before i sleep. God bless you.

  8. A few thoughts:.
    We can’t progress beyond step 2 without other people, assuming we must confess to another. If we realize
    God’s great love for us, we can bear to look at ourselves honestly and accept the humiliation we receive from others. If we really desire to become humble, we are thankful for the humiliation. But to love being treated with contempt must be a grace received in answer to prayer.

  9. God bless you Father for such a beautiful writing on humility. Your words have a Holy Spirit infused clarity that refreshes the soul and reminds us of some deep and often very painful truths. You have been a real source of inspiration, consolation and enlightenment for me.

    Life often carries me away from your blog for a season. But as soon as time eases up a bit, i come, the woman at the well, to get spiritually recharged and renewed.

    i will continue to pray for you and your ministry. We need you, your voice, your abiding care and love for your flock. Thank you.

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