This post is part of an occasional series on the virtues
At its heart, humility is reverence for the truth about oneself. We are neither to esteem ourselves too highly nor despise ourselves as bereft of God’s gifts. By humility we acknowledge that we depend on God and the gifts of others but also that we are called to accept our gifts and then use them for others. None of us has all the gifts, but together, and from God, we have all the gifts. In acknowledging our own gifts, humility calls us to remember that they are gifts, received from God and supplied or awakened by others. St. Paul says, What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)
Fundamentally, humility bids us to recognize our lowliness and remember our need to be submitted to the gifts and lawful authority of others. The word humility is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, the earth beneath our feet.
Humility as a virtue is the good habit by which a person has a modest estimate of his own worth and submits himself to others, according to reason. St. Thomas says, “… humility is a quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake. … The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, and submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, Ch. 55).
Humility does not require us to have no esteem for the gifts and graces that God has granted us. No one should fail to esteem the gifts of God, which are to be valued above all things. St. Paul says that one of the works of the Holy Spirit is That we may know the things that are given us from God (1 Corinthians 2:12). Humility also moves us to esteem the goods in others that we do not possess and to acknowledge defects or sins in our own self that we do not perceive in others. In this sense, saints were able to see their own faults and sins in a clearer light than that which is ordinarily given to persons who are not saints.
Humility is a kind of key that removes pride and makes us able and fit to receive grace. St. James writes, God resists the proud, and gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6).
An additional dimension of humility is the spontaneous embracing of humiliations. This is a practice humility accepts (though not in every case) when it is done for a necessary purpose. It is not humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation. Doing so may harm good order and divert those gifted in one area to act immoderately in areas beneath or beside what they are best and most fit to do. When virtue calls for a thing to be done, even a very lowly one, it belongs to humility not to shrink from doing it. For example, you should not refuse to perform some lowly service when charity calls upon you to help others.
Humility is a virtue and “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtusin medio consistit). Thus, virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Humility is no exception.
The defect of humility is pride, in which we esteem our self too highly and forget our lowliness and need.
These are the excesses of humility:
Too great an obsequiousness, which may serve to pamper the pride in others through flattery or encourage their sins of tyranny, arrogance, and arbitrariness.
Too much abjection of oneself, wherein one disdains the gifts of God. Disdaining one’s gifts is not in service of the truth and dishonors the giver. It may also limit one’s usefulness to others by hiding or limiting what God wants shared and used for others.
Displaced humility – Excess humility may also be derogatory to a man’s office or holy character such that he dishonors both himself and his office. This can dishearten others or fuel irreverence and dishonor to offices or states of life (e.g., the consecrated religious life or the priesthood).
St. Thomas, drawing on St. Gregory and others, lists degrees (or acts) of humility:
To be humble in heart but also to show it in one’s very person, one’s eyes fixed on the ground; one should restrain haughty looks.
To speak few and sensible words and not to be loud of voice; one should not be immoderate in speech.
Not to be easily moved and disposed to laughter; one should check laughter and other signs of senseless or demeaning mirth.
To maintain silence until one is asked; one should not be in a hurry to speak.
To do nothing except as exhorted by the common rule of the monastery or community; in one’s work one should seldom depart from the ordinary way.
To believe and acknowledge oneself a greater sinner than all; in this respect one should ponder first one’s own sinfulness.
To presume oneself insignificant and unprofitable for most purposes; one should deem oneself less than fully capable of great things.
To confess one’s sin; one should experience one’s sinfulness with compunction.
To embrace patience by obeying under difficult and contrary circumstances; one should not be deterred from this on account of the difficulties and hardships that come under obedience.
To subject oneself to a superior; one should regulate one’s own will according to the judgment of a lawful superior.
To avoid excessive delight in fulfilling one’s own desires; one should not insist on one’s own will.
To fear God and to be always mindful of everything that He has commanded.
It’s hard not be moved to the recognition that we in many ways fall short of this virtue.
Because it governs and moderates pride (our chief fault), humility is to be regarded as one of the most needed of virtues. May the Lord grant us humility in the abundance and clarity needed!
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.
I. The Foundation of Humility – Humility as a foundation is a good image, because 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 and 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), but also on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.
We are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”
Do you think you have life figured out? Can you define it? Imagine that you have 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. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me, what is that? 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?
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 – We must distinguish between humility toward God and humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and it is 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; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.
Indeed, our first humility is toward God. By it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. Even more so, no good work of ours—not even the slightest salutary act—can happen without the grace of God.
III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that we do not have meaning, direction, or purpose apart from God. Therefore, 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). Even atheists, though, cannot seem to accept or live by their own radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to live in a meaningless world—and he died insane.
For us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what He has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what He 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, narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and yet resistant to what we know is good. Our will is inconsistent, vacillating, and whimsical, 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 makes us 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). Indeed, our neighbors have many things from God that are to be respected. They have things that we share, but also many others that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts, and you do not have all the gifts, but together we have all the gifts. We have them all, though, only by mutual respect and humble submission. 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.
Note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches regarding humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery nor is it to be 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 have suffered as a result.
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 it.
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 – “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.
What is the truth? Each of us is 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 they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you, most often through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to develop 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)
Although you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. This is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. Whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.
Admit it: true humility is tough. 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):
to acknowledge oneself contemptible,
to grieve on account of it,
to confess it,
to convince others to believe this,
to bear patiently that this be said of us,
to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and
to love being thus treated
In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?
In the Office of Readings last week, we examined some of the more terrifying passages from the Book of Revelation, related to the seven trumpets, seals, and bowls of wrath. There is also a reference to the underreported “seven thunders,” reminding us that there are some things that are not for us to know.
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Rev 10:1-4).
A similar passage occurs in the Book of Daniel. Having had certain things revealed to him, Daniel is told,
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end (Dan 12:4).
To the Apostles, who pined for knowledge of the last things, Jesus said,
It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).
In all of these texts we are reminded that there are some things—even many things (seven is a number indicating fullness)—that are not for us to know. This is a warning against sinful curiosity and a solemn reminder that not all of God’s purposes or plans are revealed to us.
Several reasons come to mind for this silence and for the command to seal up the revelation of the seven thunders:
It is an instruction against arrogance and sinful curiosity. Especially today, people seem to think that they have right to know just about anything. The press speaks of the people’s “right to know.” And while this may be true about the affairs of government, it is not true about people’s private lives, and it is surely not true about all the mysteries of God. There are just some things that we have no right to know, that are none of our business. Much of our prying is a mere pretext for gossip and for the opportunity to see others’ failures and faults. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that more than half of what we talk about all day long is none of our business.
It is a rebuke of our misuse of knowledge. Sadly, especially in the “information age,” we speak of knowledge as power. We seek to know in order to control, rather than to repent and conform to the truth. We think that we should be able to do anything that we know how to do. Even more reason, then, that God should withhold from us the knowledge of many things; we’ve confused knowledge with wisdom and have used our knowledge as an excuse to abuse power, to kill with nuclear might, and to pervert the glory of human life with “reproductive technology.” Knowledge abused in this way is not wisdom; it is foolishness and is a path to grave evils.
It is to spare us from the effects of knowing things that we cannot handle. The very fact that the Revelation text above describes this knowledge as “seven thunders” indicates that these hidden utterances are of fearful weightiness. Seven is a number that refers to the fullness of something, so these are loud and devastating thunders. God, in His mercy to us, does not reveal all the fearsome terrors that will come upon this sinful world, which cannot endure the glorious and fiery presence of His justice. Too much for this world are the arrows of His quiver, which are never exhausted. Besides the terrors already foretold in Scripture, the seven thunders may well conceal others that are unutterable and too horrifying for the world to endure. Ours is a world that is incapable of enduring His holiness or of standing when He shall appear.
What, then, is to be our stance in light of the many things too great for us to know and that God mercifully conceals from us? We should have the humility of a child, who knows what he does not know but is content that his father knows.
O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, even so is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever (Psalm 131).
Yes, like humble children we should seek to learn, realizing that there are many things that are beyond us, that are too great for us. We should seek to learn, but in a humility that is reverence for the truth, a humility that realizes that we are but little children, not lords and masters.
Scripture says, Beyond these created wonders many things lie hid. Only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Thank you, Lord, for what you have taught us and revealed to us. Thank you, too, for what you have mercifully kept hidden because it is too much for us to know. Thank you, Lord. Help us learn and keep us humble, like little children.
We tend to think that happiness is the result of the right circumstances or external factors. If I just have a little more money, or live in this place or that, or arrange the right sort of pleasures, or be with just the right people, then I will be happy.
Of course, this doesn’t really work; it’s a little lie we tell ourselves to excuse our greed and excessiveness. It’s also at the heart of most marketing and sales pitches.
Deep down we know better. We know that happiness is an “inside job.” We know people who have much yet are unhappy; we know others who have little and are nonetheless happy.
It is often the same with what irritates and vexes us. An insight from the desert fathers reminds us of our own role in becoming irritated by others. It is paraphrased by Augustine Wetta in his book Humility Rules:
If you are upset when someone insults you, don’t put the blame on him. You were a pile of dry leaves; he was just the breeze that blew you over (From Abba Dorotheos of Gaza).
Yes, much of the pain from insult, misunderstanding, and irritation originates from within, not from without. If someone can “push my buttons,” I should consider why I have buttons out there for others to push? That is my part of the problem.
While it is true that others should not insult me, it is also true that many of us are too easily offended. In these times of strident opinions and identity politics we have become thin-skinned; we often lack the humility to have a sense of humor about ourselves. Like dry leaves we are easily “blown away” by the merest look or remark.
We do well to look within for deepest causes of our anger and hurt. The winds of insult and injustice will surely blow; we can do our part by endeavoring to be more substantial than a pile of dry leaves.
In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.
St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book Steps of Humility and Pride.
(1) Fear of God– To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.
Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.
Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.
(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.
Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.
The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”
On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.
(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.
(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.
Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.
Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.
We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.
Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.
(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).
Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.
We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.
(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:
External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.
Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”
(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.
Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.
With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.
(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.
As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.
(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.
(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.
As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.
Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.
As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.
(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.
(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.
The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.
This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.
By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.
Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.
Humility is often discovered in little ways. Misplacing my keys is a frequent method for me. I’ve got my plans in mind; I consider myself well-prepared for meeting I’m attending; now it’s time to go. Uh oh, where the heck are my keys?
Mr. Cool as a Cucumber is now all hot and bothered, frantically rooting around for the missing keys. My staff has learned to keep one eye on me and the other on my keys!
I thought about this as I watched the commercial below. In it, a starship is under attack. The brash, unruffled captain walks bravely to his ship, ready to save the day. But then . . . well, see for yourself.
Like so many things in life, self-esteem needs to be balanced. The balance is between humility and pride. The following is attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim, one of the leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland in the late 1700s and early 1800s:
Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words, “For my sake was the world created,” and in his left pocket, “I am dust and ashes” (quoted in The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 60).
Indeed, there is something magnificent about every individual. No one will ever be exactly like you or have just your combination of gifts. To you and to us all God gave the earth, saying,
Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food (Gen 1:28-29).
We have exhibited this mastery both as individuals and communally. Ours are science, learning, poetry, philosophy, art, law, technology, libraries, and great universities. We have built cities and civilizations. We’ve even been to the moon and back. No animal species—not even the highest primates—demonstrates anything even close to the qualities we have or has done anything that compares with what we have done. We have spiritual souls and rational minds. There is something glorious about the human person.
Yet we must also remember that we are but dust and ashes. We are contingent beings who depend on God for everything. Every beat of our heart, every fiber of our being, must be caused and sustained by Him. Scripture says,
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more (Psalm 103:13-16).
Our glory is a humble, derived, reflected one. Whatever spark of glory we have it is but a spark; it is from God, whose glory is unsurpassable.
Remember well your glory, but also your neediness and contingency. Whatever your gifts (and you do have them) remember that they are from God and are often granted through others.
Yes, two pockets: one for esteem, the other for humility.
In his book Humility Rules (which I think should be read as Humility Rules!), Fr. J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. offers some insight into the humility of patience, forgiveness, and mercy.
Fr. Wetta recalls a situation in which he was asked to preach at the wedding of his best friend. As a monk, he was not accustomed to in preaching in parish settings and so sought the advice of an older monk:
I went looking for Fr. Luke. He is the founder of our community and has seen pretty much everything a monk can see. I found him asleep in a chair in the calefactory [a warmed sitting room in a monastery]. “Wake up, Father,” I said, “I need something wise to say at my buddy’s wedding.”
Fr. Luke opened his eyes, look around the room for a moment, and then said, “Tell them that there will come a day when he will want the window open and she will want the window closed.” Then he went back to sleep.
Fr. Wetta observes,
So, true love is more about endurance than it is about chocolates and teddy bears. We prove our love at precisely those moments when the people we love test our patience, put a strain on our kindness, and tempt us to anger. Love is truly love—and not just infatuation—when it proves itself in the crucible of suffering (Humility Rules, pp. 59-60).
Humility Rules is a wonderful book, well worth reading for its humor, wisdom, and whimsical art. The advice offered is not all that different from what I offer to pre-Cana couples, but Fr. Wetta presents it with more humor.
Patience, magnanimity, and mercy are essential for any relationship, let alone marriage.
Married couples give each other many gifts. Some of them come wrapped in obvious packages such as companionship, intimacy, and completion. Others come in strange packages.
Indeed, a spouse can give his/her partner many opportunities to know what it means to forgive. This is a gift, however strange its package, because Jesus teaches that if we forgive we will be forgiven but if we do not then we may go to Hell.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours (Matt 6:14-15).
Without forgiveness, it is pretty hard to enter glory; with it we stand a good chance.
It is the same with mercy. Jesus says,
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7).
Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (James 2:13).
As anyone who has been married for any length of time knows, spouses give each other ample opportunities to practice mercy. Indeed, the debate about the window that Fr. Luke described above may well occur in the limousine ride from the church to the reception hall! This, too, is a gift in strange package. If I show mercy then I will be shown mercy on judgment day—and we’re all going to need mercy then, lots of it!
Even the difficult parts of marriage, the gifts in strange packages, help to sanctify the husband and wife. St. Paul reminds us, And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28).
Indeed they do. Don’t forget the gifts in strange packages.