March 2007 – On Humility

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

March 2007

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

There may be no one who understood Saint Francis of Assisi more than Brother Leo in whom he confided the meaning of true joy, and who was later present when the wounds of Christ were etched by the seraphic angel into the saint’s flesh. It is fitting, therefore, that we turn to this faithful companion to gain deeper insight into his spirituality.

As Leo observed, “The most holy father…willed and preached that (friars) should desire to be founded in holy Humility.”

We’ve already considered the question of evangelical poverty in relation to the poverello’s religious values. By comparison, humility might appear far less significant. But it would be an error to arrive at such a conclusion. In fact, humility was the cause and poverty, the effect. Poverty was the aspect of Jesus’ life that Saint Francis chose to emulate, but it was humility that prompted his incarnation of this radical desire and characterised the shape his life took on. Above all, it situated his identity in relationship to God, and all creation.

Humility would find its ultimate expression in filial love of God and fraternal love of even the poorest outcast of society. He would understand that humility is not self-deprecation but the establishment of right relationships with others and with the ultimate Other. Far from being a cowardly response to wealth, prestige and power in our world, it is a free choice, which requires wisdom, courage and self-knowledge. It reorients the human desire of pride toward grander outcomes than those we could hope to achieve on our own.

Let him who takes pride, take pride in the Lord, that honour and glory may be only God’s forever.

Little Flowers of St. Francis

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Whenever I think of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples just hours before his suffering and death, I am struck by how much importance he accorded to this prophetic gesture. Surely no one in the jaws of death would waste time on action that is unimportant. To the contrary, this must be read as his synthesis and conclusion for us who seek to draw closer to Jesus. “I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you.” (Jn 13:15)

A letter written by Saint Francis called “Letter to All the Faithful”, addressed to “all Christians, religious, clerics and lay folk, men and women; to everyone in the whole world”, is replete with biblical references to humility. Among them, we find this unequivocal admonition, “Be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” (1 Peter 2:13)

In it, he presents himself in all humility: “I am the servant of all and so I am bound to wait upon everyone and make known to them the fragrant word of my Lord.” We are meant to notice, I think, one of the juiciest fruits of humility. Like Jesus, who came to serve and not to be served (cf. Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45; Lk 22:27), Saint Francis reveals the wisdom of making known the word of God from below rather than from above. This reminds us of the long and loving descent of Jesus. He took the form of a servant, was born without comfort or privilege, lived in exile for a time, ministered with no place to rest his head, suffered ridicule and contempt before dying by the most humiliating form of execution, and finally descended to the dead before being raised by the Father as a reward for his obedience.

All of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another; for the scripture says, ‘God resists the proud, but shows favour to the humble.” Humble yourself, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own good time.

– 1 Peter 5: 5-6

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Because he knew the risks of spiritual vanity, Saint Francis was careful to ensure that the adoption of religious practices such as the exercise of humility was purposeful rather than an end onto itself. These practices, therefore, produced wholesome fruit. Bonaventure reminds us that “Francis’ humility is worth imitating… This is the humility which exalts those who poses it and is respectful toward all; and consequently it is found worthy to be revered by all.”

Like poverty, its inspiration is found in the life of Jesus himself. Saint Francis was struck by the humility of the Incarnation and the life of Jesus in general. He noted how Jesus always exercised leadership by example rather than power, as distinct from the Pharisees. Insisting that no friar bear a superior title or be called “prior”, the saint wrote “They are all to be known as, ‘Friars Minor’ without distinction, and they should be prepared to wash one another’s feet.” The idea of minority permeates all of Saint Francis’ rules and reflects its vital importance in understanding the key charism of Franciscanism.

One of the most telling accounts of this is to be found in Bonaventure’s biography, specifically in a chapter entitled “Francis’ Humility and Obedience,” one of the longest chapters. It is interesting to see how the great theologian links the similar though separate ideas of humility and obedience. First, he provides the foundation: “Francis had humility in abundance, the guardian and the crowning glory of all virtue. He was a mirror and a shining example of Christian perfection but in his own eyes he was only a sinner, and it was on this that he based his spiritual progress, laying the foundation he had learned from Christ, as a careful architect should (cf. 1 Cor. 3: 10).”

Further on, he adds, “Like the wise trader in the Gospel, Francis was anxious to profit by every possible occasion and use all his time to gain merit, and so he wished to live in obedience to another rather than be a superior, and obey rather than command. He resigned his position as general of the Order and asked for a guardian whom he could obey constantly. He was convinced that the fruits of obedience are so abundant that anyone who submits to it can never spend a moment without drawing some profit from it.” Evidently, Saint Francis saw obedience as the logical outcome of humility. In this state, he could imitate Jesus who “walked the path of obedience all the way to death.” (Phil 2:8)

Perform your tasks with humility.
– Sirach 3: 17

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I once sat in a job interview facing someone who asked me how I would deal with a hypothetical confrontation at work. As part of my answer, I made a vague reference to the fact that I would approach the situation “with a certain sense of humility.” Obviously disturbed by this, my interviewer abruptly interrupted me by stating: “In business, you must never be humble.” He was offering friendly advice, I realized, born from observation, experience and the mainstream of business praxis. Seen from his perspective, humility is the door to defeat and a humble person is unfit for the politics of market life.

This commonly expressed point-of-view poses a perplexing challenge to those of us who struggle to make the Wisdom imbedded in Scripture a working reality for daily living. If Jesus’ teachings mean anything, they must withstand the test of having practical value in the daily lives of those who attend church in good faith and then go out to make a living in a world that measures winning by the degree to which others have been defeated.

Because it is derived from the Latin word humilis meaning ground, the word humility is generally regarded as connoting lowliness, whereas I think it more profitable to think of humility in terms of being grounded or even rooted. We all know what happens to a tree struck by a violent wind if it is not well rooted. It is precisely from the unassuming earth that it draws strength. To be humble is nothing more than to see oneself frankly and objectively. It embraces both strengths and weaknesses.

Tom Peters, a respected anatomist of corporate success, writes in a book entitled, “Humility and Business: Never the Twain Shall Meet,” about the peril of overestimating our ability to influence outcomes. To illustrate, he writes: “Systematically review a stack of annual reports. Without fail, a good year is explained as the fruit of management’s action, while a bad year is invariably the result of any number of external factors.” The Washington Business Journal bears the revealing headline: “Blue Chip Humility & Courage.” It praises successful entrepreneurs who manage to confess and put their strengths and weaknesses into proper perspective. Clearly, humility must become more than a spiritual virtue; it must be seen as a social value and a pragmatic tool in the workplace.

Lord, give us humility in which alone is rest, and deliver us from pride which is the heaviest of burdens.

– Thomas Merton

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May the good Lord lead you to find the true peace and joy of humility. May the path of simplicity, gratitude and generosity reveal to you the wisdom of humility as Christ Jesus lived it. May the Holy Spirit fill your heart with consolation and light.



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