Reflection on Humility II (September 2004)

September 2004


Reflection on Humility II ©

Humility, we are told, is the root and guardian of all virtues. If this is so, then its importance in living according to Gospel values can scarcely be exaggerated.

Indeed, Scripture urges us in countless ways to be humble of heart.

For example, the Book of Sirach reminds us to “perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved by those whom God accepts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself.” (3:17-18) The prophet Isaiah was similarly insistent on the need for humility, emphasizing its openness to God’s mercy and grace: “I dwell in the high and holy places, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the sprit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (57:15) Micah too proclaimed its indispensable nature: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8)

While humility may be said to be necessary to salvation, as without it faith is counterfeit, it is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the engine of holiness, while love of God and neighbor is its fuel.

Mystics and theologians alike have vaunted its merits for centuries. For my part, I marvel most at its direct connection to charity, the noblest of Christian virtues.

Humility leads quite naturally to simplicity, which in turn opens us to a spirit of unfettered gratitude, and the fruit of genuine gratitude is generosity.

Simplicity enables us to feel that we are wealthy with precious little in worldly terms. In this circumstance, we are thankful for all that we do have, noticing spontaneously the greatness of gifts typically overlooked or undervalued. Such an attitude of gratitude enables us to see how we, in fact, have more than we truly need and, indeed, are constantly being filled with more and more of God’s goodness.

It is this overflowing that leads to generosity, when coupled with love of God and neighbour, animated by God’s own holy spirit of charity (caritas).

Our joy is in knowing that God’s action in us is more than enough wealth, power and prestige. By contrast, our own vain attempts to create wealth, power and prestige always result in disillusionment or decay.

That is why the apostle Paul was able to regard himself as rich in the midst of deprivation: “We are treated…as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (cf. 2Cor. 6:3-10) That is why we recall that the rich man who filled barns with bounty soon came to see the futility of such misguided effort: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things that you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12: 20-21) And, that is why Paul elsewhere promises, “My God will fully satisfy every need of your s according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (cf. Phil.4: 10-20)

Jesus’ key condition for discipleship is to abandon all attachments and to follow him with total trust (cf. Luke 14:25-33). The promise is that “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) The greatness Jesus refers to is from God’s perspective; it is crowned with genuine freedom, true joy and eternal life.

The illusion of self-sufficiency is the antithesis of humility and leads to devastating results. It is not the path for learning true wisdom, nor is it the road to eternal life. Speaking to his Father, Jesus said: “I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned”, and speaking to his disciples, he said: “I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but they could not, and to hear to you hear, but they did not.” (cf. Luke 10:21-24) As with Mary his mother, those who humble themselves are filled with Wisdom: “He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:48)

The word simplicity never appears in the Bible yet its presence is evident throughout. It is the practical application of the more familiar Christian principles of humility, modesty and evangelical poverty. Simplicity is also intuitive or spiritual intelligence in that it provides solid grounding for the living out of those principles.

A few years ago, I was blessed with an opportunity to hear and talk with Sr. José Hobday, a Franciscan sister of Seneca Iroquois descent Since then, she has written a book about simplicity in which she reveals an awesome truth about the simple life. She points out that, properly understood and lived, simplicity gives us more, not less, of the wonderful things in life.

“We don’t want just the bare essentials. Nobody wants to live with the bare minimum. …Material things can delight us, enhance our appetites, tease our minds and imaginations and make life comfortable and beautiful. We can express our creativity in gifts to others. When properly used, gifts enrich the soul. We’ve been talking about restricting, learning our needs and helps, preferences and luxuries, looking at ways to not pile up and accumulate and be really overwhelmed by things. But what am I to get out of this? What’s in it for me? What can I expect from simplifying my life?

“The first thing is an appreciation of real values. We learn to appreciate what we have…Sometimes we have to lose it all to discover we have it all in the presence of our loved ones. It’s not only we who come from dust and will return to dust. It’s all these wonderful treasures, too. They too return to ashes and dust

“ I want to tell you from years of experience that you can expect from simplicity a freedom of spirit you can hardly believe…So much is taken off our shoulders by disciplines of release and freedom. We gain not only material space but inner room for things that are new and exciting. We gain an uncluttered spot for something lovely and beautiful. We gain time. We have more room in our soul. Our soul feels clean and empty, swept out–uncluttered and unfettered.

“In simplicity our spirit is freer to look at things, not with care and worry or as a custodian. Our spirit is free. We receive gifts with greater freedom…Or, we help all who gives us gifts to understand that we appreciate them and will enjoy them, but we also may pass them along. I’ll keep some things. I’ll treasure some things but always with the understanding that I will eventually give them away. We become proficient at recycling when we gain a sense of simplicity. Not only do we appreciate something while we have it, but we’re always open to where it will be more appreciated, more useful, more delightful to someone who has less to delight in. And we will learn to give with no strings attached, and to help others give to us in the same way.”

In this reflection, we see not only the freedom that simplicity generates, but also the gratitude that gives it voice. In gratitude, we find peace and joy. Most especially, we find a heightened degree of consciousness.

For gratitude to be present, there must be a high level of awareness regarding the presence and value of what we do receive, often without effort on our part. These include the gift of life, and health and security, and beautiful, pleasant surroundings, and loving parents, and on and on. We must also be aware of the great generosity of family, friends and even strangers.

Expressing that gratitude to God is an awesome prayer: “Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (Heb.12: 28) Psalm 148 is a gracious and spirited acknowledgement of the wonders that fill our daily lives: “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.” The song of Daniel is similar: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord, Praise and exalt him above all forever.” (cf. Dan. 3: 57-88)

Expressing gratitude to others creates an atmosphere of fellowship in which the Holy Spirit builds up the body of Christ. Gratitude, freely felt and expressed, produces great generosity, the condition for charity: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all God’s people.” (Col. 1:3)

Now, this reflection comes full circle. We find that there is a vital connection between humility and charity. Now, we see that the spirituality that flowers as generosity (fecundity) is deeply rooted in humility (humus).

Prayer for Generosity

Consider the connection with humility in Ignatius of Loyola’s prayer asking the Lord for the gift of generosity:

“Lord, teach me to be generous,
Teach me to serve you as you deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to seek reward,
Save that of knowing that I do your will.”