The Meaning Of Humility
On February 28, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI chose to humble himself in an act of self sacrifice and abdicate his papacy in order to pave the way for an urgently needed stronger pope and stronger Church. Newly elected Pope Francis is, in turn, being hailed as a modern saint whose concern for the poor is mirrored in his humility and simple lifestyle.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he refused to live in the bishop’s residence, opting instead to live in a simple apartment, cook his own meals, and take public transportation. As pope he intends to continue this same legacy. The path he has set forth for both himself and the church can be summed in his initial statement “This is what I want, a poor church for the poor.” Today we are living, morally, in what some have called a crisis of faith.
This has been due, in no small measure, to the rapid advancement and influence of secularization and moral relativism which has permeated modern society. In order to reverse this trend a certain rediscovery of essential virtues like humility is necessary for mankind.
The Meaning of Humility
The word humility signifies lowliness or submissiveness and it is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, i.e. the earth which is beneath us. St. Bernard defines the moral virtue of humility as the “virtue whereby man, through a true knowledge of himself, becomes despicable in his own eyes.”
Humility is rooted in truth and justice. Truth causes us to know ourselves as we truly are: that which is good in us belongs to God and that which is evil proceeds from ourselves. Justice inclines us to act upon this knowledge and to praise God for his many gifts and graces.
We all enter this world tainted by original sin. Due to concupiscence we habitually fall into sin and are continually in need of God’s mercy. We, therefore, must learn to love humiliations and accept all reproaches. Being nothing of ourselves we must love oblivion and self-effacement: to be unknown, to be reckoned as nothing. As sinners we deserve every kind of humiliation.
Humility is at once the key to the riches of grace and the foundation of all the virtues. Humility empties the soul of self-love and vain-glory, and thus creates there a vast capacity for grace. God knows that humble souls refer all glory to Him: that they neither accept His grace with complacency nor pride. He therefore bestows upon such souls a greater abundance of His favors for His own greater glory. On the other hand He often withholds his graces from those puffed up with vanity since they would appropriate it for their own end and glory (James 4:6).
Humility is the foundation of all the virtues in that it is the basis for solid virtue as well as the catalyst by which all other virtues grow in depth and perfection. Humility as the antithesis of pride renders our faith more active, more ready, more firm and more enlightened. Faith in turn reveals to us the infinite perfection of God, our own nothingness and grounds us further in humility
To practice humility one must first begin by waging war against pride since it is pride that constitutes the primal evil in our souls. Remedies against pride include the acknowledgment that God is the Author of all good, and that to Him belongs all honor and glory.
Beginners in the spiritual life must form the conviction that we all came from nothing and that we all tend towards nothingness, whereto we would surely return were it not for the abiding action of God that sustains us. We are all dependent upon God and have no other reason for our existence than that of giving glory to our Creator. To forget this dependence and act as if our good qualities were absolutely our own is an error that attests to sheer madness. With this in mind we must strive to attain the humble dispositions of the soul of Christ who “being in the form of God, did not deem to be equal with God, but emptied Himself”(Phil. 2: 6-7). Humility implies this express act of self-humiliation, a voluntary descent beneath our legitimate natural dignity, an act of reducing ourselves to naught before God. It implies the gesture of a permanent inner dying of the self, in order that Christ may live in us – a gesture that has found its unique expression in the figure of St. John the Baptist and in his words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John. 3:30).
The Humility of Christ
Our Lord gave us many examples of humility upon which we can meditate and strive to imitate.
During His hidden life He practiced humility primarily through self-effacement. Before His birth He hid Himself for nine months in the virginal womb of Mary where He submitted Himself to Caesar’s edict and suffering without complaint the rude refusal of His mother to stay at the inn.
At His birth the Son of God appeared as a poor infant. Following His Birth He was circumcised and then obliged to flee into Egypt in order to escape the persecution of Herod.
Later at Nazareth he submitted Himself for thirty years in obedience to His parents where He was known only as the carpenter’s son. He hid Himself in the most complete obscurity in order to merit for us the grace that would enable us to sanctify our most commonplace actions and inspire within us a love of humility.
Throughout the course of His public life Jesus practiced humility by proclaiming in both word and deed that He was the Son of God. He did this in a discreet manner and without forcing assent. He surrounded Himself with Apostles that were ignorant and of little esteem. He lived by alms and showed a marked preference for those in particular whom the world often despises such as the poor, sinners, and the sick.
His teaching was simple and direct. He often used parables that were taken from ordinary life with the aim, not of winning the admiration of men, but of instructing and touching their hearts. His miracles were rare and He often charged his beneficiaries not to speak of them.
Jesus’s abject humility is demonstrated in His Passion. Betrayed by Judas and deserted by His Apostles he did not cease to love them. At His arrest He healed Malchus who was wounded by Peter. He suffered the affronts of the crowd to which he was delivered in silence. He answered the high priest out of respect for authority knowing full well that His words of truth would bring Him the death penalty. Treated like a fool by Herod and unjustly condemned by Pilate He kept His peace.
Without seeking a single miracle to vindicate His honor He allowed Himself to be scourged, mocked and crowned with thorns. He accepted on His shoulders a heavy cross which He carried to His crucifixion without a single word of complaint.
Insulted by His enemies he prayed for their conversion and excused them before His Father. Deprived of all heavenly comfort, deserted by His disciples, His dignity as a man, His reputation, His honor, all set at naught, He suffered it seems every species of humiliation that the mind of man can conceive, and He can say with far greater truth than the Psalmist: “I am worm and no man: the reproach of men and the outcast of the people”(Ps. 22:7).
Our Lord’s Eucharistic life in the tabernacle also reproduces examples of humility. It is here that the Divinity of Christ is veiled perhaps to a greater extent than it was in the crib and on Calvary. It is here that He continues to suffer affronts from non-believers as well as Christians who either ignore Him or at times, either out of weakness or shame, make sacrilegious communions.
Nonetheless, Christ incessantly proclaims “Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy burdened, and I will refresh you”(Matt. 11:28).
We can practice humility, after Our Lord’s example, in many ways toward God, our neighbor and ourselves.
Toward God we can practice the spirit of religion whereby we contemplate God as the fullness of being and perfection while at the same time joyfully acknowledging our own sinfulness and nothingness. From the heart we cry out to Him “ Thou alone art holy, Thou alone art Lord, Thou alone art most high.”
In union with our Blessed Mother we can also show our humility toward God by thanking Him for all the good He has bestowed upon us: “My soul doth magnify the Lord…He that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is His name”(Luke 1: 46-49). Mary’s humility consisted in gratefully recognizing that all her sterling qualities and endowments were pure, gratuitous gifts from God. She did not selfishly appropriate them to herself or selfishly hoard them.
We can also exercise humility towards God by confessing, in the spirit of dependence, our inability to do any good of ourselves. We should thus never undertake any action without first placing ourselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit – whose grace alone can supply for our deficiencies. In regards to our neighbor, we can practice humility by seeing in him both the natural and supernatural good which God has placed in him and admire it without envy or jealousy. This means rejoicing at his successes and virtues. At the same time we must overlook, while praying for his conversion, those defects in our neighbor that it is not our duty to correct.
This attitude enables us to see ourselves as inferior to others: “In humility, let each esteem others better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). We must avoid the pitfall of the self-righteous who, as often manifest in the form of sarcasm, take pleasure in contemplating the defects of others, against which their own superiority stands out more glowing. In them there lives an evil resentment against the virtues of others, which they experience as a threat to their self-glory. In this regard St. Vincent de Paul gave his disciples the following advice: “Every man can and should judge himself; and when he knows himself intimately, he sees clearly that he is indeed guilty, and further, that there exist in him evil tendencies. From this he concludes that he must hold himself in contempt.
Others, however, he should not and cannot condemn, since he does not know their motives, which are essential elements for the appraisal of conduct.” To practice humility with respect to ourselves we must, first and foremost, consider our defects, our nothingness and our sinfulness without failing to recognize the good in us and to give the proper thanks to God. This makes it easier to practice humility which must extend to the whole man, to mind, heart and outward conduct.
Humility of mind requires a proper distrust of self that prevents us from overrating our ability, and disposes us to feel humiliated at the ill-use we have made of the gifts of God. We must use our talents for good without seeking to be noticed or to be praised.
Humility of mind requires that we practice intellectual docility. This includes accepting, as having a greater wisdom than our own judgements, the official teachings of the Church – even those which do not possess the character of infallibility.
Humility of heart requires that we shun the exalted life of honors and glory and “Sit down in the lowest place” (Luke. 14:10). We ought not to dwell on the talents we have, for they are not ours; we are only the bearers of them, and even with these gifts we can lose our souls. For this reason no one should flatter himself, nor take any complacency in himself…he should rather humble himself and acknowledge that he is but a poor instrument which God deigns to employ.
External humility is the outward manifestation of inward sentiments born of decision of the will. There are numerous ways in which, by our outward conduct, we express the virtue of humility: by not seeking the finest lodgings or the most expensive clothes; by rejecting petty pleasures and honors; by avoiding slavery to conventions; by having an unassuming posture; by engaging in humble occupations. The same may be said of the condescension, marks of deference and acts of courtesy shown to others. In our conversations we should seek not to discuss our own interests but those of others.
Saint Josemaria Escriva lists seventeen evidences of a lack of humility:
1. Thinking that what you do or say is better than what others do or say.
2. Always wanting to get your own way.
3. Arguing when you are not right or – when you are – insisting stubbornly or with bad manners.
4. Giving your opinion without being asked for it, when charity does not demand you to do so.
5. Despising the point of view of other.
6. Not being aware that all the gifts and qualities you have are on loan.
7. Not acknowledging that you are unworthy of all honor and esteem, even the ground you are treading on or the things you own.
8. Mentioning yourself as an example in conversation.
9. Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you.
10. Making excuses when rebuked.
11. Hiding some humiliating faults from your [spiritual] director, so that he may not lose the good opinion he has of you.
12. Hearing praise with satisfaction, or being glad that others have spoken well of you.
13. Being hurt that others are held in greater esteem than you.
14. Refusing to carry out menial tasks.
15. Seeking or wanting to be singled out.
16. Letting drop words of self-praise in conversation, or words that might show your honesty, your wit or skill, your professional prestige.
17. Being ashamed of not having certain possessions.
True humility is thoroughgoing poverty of both heart and mind.
St. Theresa of Avila simply calls it “walking in truth”. It is the correlative human effort to know both God and oneself as the two parties are objectively. Humility is primarily a disposition of our will to restrain that tendency which we all have to claim an esteem and consideration which is beyond our due and to assert an independence of judgment and of will that does not belong to us as creatures.
In the words of St. Augustine: “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts our meaningless.”
Paul Kokoskichurch, religion