Reflection on Humility I (August 2004)

August 2004


Reflection on Humility I ©

I often think of Luke’s as the most challenging of the four Gospels, particularly with regard to our relationship to other people. It offers profound insights into, among other things, the true nature of justice and charity, and sets a very high standard of ethical behavior for Christians.

There is a banquet scene found only in this gospel (Chapter 14) that cleverly teaches Pharisees (and us) the very essence of humility, and the generosity that humility enables. Jesus transforms a seemingly unimportant seating arrangement into a lesson in humility. He tells the guests to “Take the lowest place, adding, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In a related passage, He continues: When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. The first is an attitude and pertains to humility; the second is an action that pertains to charity, which is only possible because of humility. The first opens the door; the second tells us how to walk through it.

Few discussions of spirituality occur without at least fleeting reference to humility. My purpose here is to reflect on an aspect of this much-vaunted virtue, namely that it disposes us to good and grace.

There is a nearly physical reality about humility. When we are vain, we stand figuratively above everything. In the first place, it detaches us from Creation, including other people. In the second, whether we admit it or not, it places us on a par with, if not above, the Creator. Humility, on the other hand, which comes from the word humus meaning “soil”, puts us on a level at which we can have a real dialogue with and even embrace Creation and assume an appropriate posture in relation to the Creator.

To be humble in the face of God is to freely open one’s heart and mind to his gratuitous and gracious self-revelation through the witness and wisdom of saints of ancient and modern times, and in the long tradition of faith of which Sacred Scripture is the foundation.

To lack humility is to become vulnerable to vanity that shuts the ears of the heart and the eyes of the mind. Vanity is inward looking. It blocks receptivity to others and to otherness, to transcendence and to the Transcendent. It causes blindness and deafness of the soul. In some cases, its far-reaching effects are fatal.

In an insidious way, the Prince of Illusion can convince us that faith and vanity comfortably coexist. When he does, he presents God as being remote …far removed from the reality of daily living. In the process, he persuades us to live a form of faith through ritualised phrases and behaviours that breed self-righteousness. We come to see ours as an exemplary life; we find pleasure and satisfaction in our own construction of goodness.

No doubt, God wants us to see goodness in ourselves. But God sees in us the goodness that he placed in us from before our birth, so if our sense of our goodness manifested itself as gratitude and generosity, he would probably rejoice in that. But the sad reality is that if our perception of goodness is not coupled with humility and gratitude, it is counterfeit and leads to spiritual paralysis and atrophy. Both are the fruits of vanity. And in this, the God of all Life surely finds great sadness.

The reason is very simple. False pride deprives us of the spiritual fulfilment that comes from honest encounter with those whom God presents as channels of faith, hope and love. It closes our mind to the fuller truths of Scripture, and to God’s call to venture courageously out of our zone of comfort into the mystery of death and resurrection. It blocks the light of the Resurrection. It dims the voice of Him who called us to die to ourselves and to follow him to the cross and beyond. It disables our capacity to love.

At any moment, God stands ready to fill us with the graces needed to achieve our purpose in life and to deal with the circumstances of daily living. It is our receptivity to that grace that is the issue here. Humility presents us to God as a vessel waiting to be filled while vanity seals it shut, greatly compromising our capacity for receiving grace.

During what we call the scholastic period of the Middle Ages, a great deal of thought was given to the virtue of humility. Among those who systematised their insights was Bonaventure (d.1274), sometimes called the second founder of the Franciscan Order.

In an inspiring spiritual work entitled The Tree of Life, he refers to humility as “the root and guardian of all virtues.” Moreover, he presents Jesus as the exemplar of humility, citing major instances in his life when our saviour’s power shone through forms of poverty. It was foolishness to the world, but strangely salvific for those who believed him to be the messiah.

Though he was the Son of God, Jesus did not cling to his divinity but took the form of a slave and emptied himself, accepting death on a cross. (cf. Phil. 2). He was shown to the Magi in the most modest of surroundings. He was exiled and then was submissive to the Law. Jesus conformed himself to his forefathers: “The innocent Lamb who takes away the sins of the world does not shrink from the wound of circumcision.”

If Christ is the exemplar of humility, then Francis of Assisi (d.1226) is surely its icon. Francis’ close identification with Jesus inspired Bonaventure to meditate upon the mystery of humility. In a popular, highly romanticized yet poignant story of his life, I Fioretti (Little Flowers of St. Francis), we find these observations: “No man can attain to any knowledge or understanding of God but by the virtue of holy humility; for the direct way to ascend is first to descend. All the perils and grievous falls, which have happened in this world, have arisen from nothing else but the uplifting of the head – that is, of the mind – by pride. This is proved by the fall of the devil, who was driven out of heaven; and by that of Adam, our first parent, who was banished from paradise by the uplifting of his head – that is, by disobedience.” Here again: “We see it also in the example of the Pharisee, of whom Christ speaks in the Gospel, and in many others also.”

The Franciscans, however, were not the only religious to scrutinize the nature and purpose of humility. For instance, chapter seven of the Benedictine Rule deals with humility by dividing it into twelve degrees or steps in the ladder that leads to heaven. They are: fear of God; repression of self-will; submission of the will to superiors; obedience in hard and difficult matters; confession of faults; acknowledgment of one’s own worthlessness; preference of others to self; avoidance of singularity; speaking only in due season; stifling of unseemly laughter; repression of pride; and exterior humility.

Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) who led a new branch of the Benedictine Order known as the Cistercians, would similarly write of humility as something that can be dissected and described and put into a consciously articulated program of life.

Indeed, Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) compares the twelve degrees mentioned by Bernard to those outlined by Benedict of Nursia (d.547): The first is to ‘be humble in heart, Aquinas writes, and this is opposed to ‘curiosity,’ (or looking around in all directions inordinately). The second degree of humility is ‘to speak few and sensible words, and not to be loud of voice’: to this is opposed ‘frivolity of mind,’ by which a man is proud of speech. The third degree is ‘not to be easily moved and disposed to laughter,’ or ‘senseless mirth’, which is often a means of avoidance. The fourth is ‘to maintain silence,’ as opposed to ‘boasting’. The fifth degree of humility is ‘to do nothing but to what one is exhorted by the common rule of the monastery. ’ Here, singularity is the target, whereby a man wishes to seem more holy than others. The sixth degree of humility is ‘to believe and acknowledge oneself viler than all,’ to which is opposed ‘arrogance,’ whereby a man sets himself above others. The seventh degree is ‘to think oneself worthless,’ to which is opposed ‘presumption,’ whereby a man thinks himself capable of things by his own devices. The eighth is ‘to confess one’s sins,’ to which is opposed ‘defense of one’s sins.’ The ninth degree is ‘to embrace patience by obeying under difficult and contrary circumstances,’ to which is opposed ‘deceitful confession,’ whereby a man being unwilling to be punished for his sins confesses them deceitfully. The tenth is ‘obedience,’ to which is opposed ‘rebelliousness.’ The eleventh degree of humility is ‘not to delight in fulfilling one’s own desires’; to this is opposed ‘license,’ whereby a man delights in doing freely whatever he will. The last degree is ‘fear of God’: to this is opposed ‘the habit of sinning,’ which implies contempt of God.

The scholastic approach may appear arcane to our 21st century eyes but it does reveal that humility is neither easily understood nor easily lived. It runs against much of what we are encouraged by the world to believe. That is why humility needs attention. Any virtue requires prayer, diligence and, above all, willingness to examine our relationship to God and neighbor, indeed to all creation. Once we begin to appreciate each one, we soon see that humility perfects all the others by disposing us to God as the supreme and self-diffusive Good, and the ongoing conversion to which we are all called.