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Recalibrating Humility

I have been pondering the virtues, those aspects of character that are central to the spiritual life. Gradually, I’ve come to understand that we don’t have a virtue, rather it has us, and the only way to know if the virtue has us is by its fruits. As Paul says, it is by their fruits you will know them.

Humility is one of the most difficult virtues to understand, particularly in our time when self-confidence, celebrity, and success are the measure of a person. Mostly humility is totally maligned or misunderstood. The self-confident are full of pride and the meek are considered helpless, wimps, or milquetoasts. We praise the prideful and denigrate what seems like weakness.

Who wants to be humble? Unless of course you are Uriah Heap, the Dickens character, who deprecated his gifts and talents for the sake of praise. Humility is not an esteemed virtue in America today, and much misery and unhappiness follow from that fact. Although the word humility is allied with humble and humiliation, the root of the word comes from humus, from the soil, the earth. As such humility means to be anchored, grounded, connected in relationship. We begin our Prayer for the World each week not only by focusing on our breath, but on our feet and their connection to the earth. Our connectedness, our relationship with the ground of all being, prompts a stance of humility.

Laurence Freeman, the Benedictine monk, refers to Jesus asking the question—”Who do you say I am?” This was not a question from which Jesus attempted to garner praise, to boost his self-confidence, but rather it was to get at the secret of his identity. Freeman writes that it was Jesus’ humility which was the basis of his identity. And what do we mean by humility, asks Freeman? It doesn’t mean putting yourself down all the time and saying I’m a sinner, I’m no good at anything, I’m hopeless. That can be a subtle form of pride. Humility means knowing yourself. Humility describes those who are grounded, who know themselves, and are in touch with themselves. The deepest form of self-knowledge is knowing ourselves in God who is our origin and who loves and cherishes us. When we know this, we have no need to be self-justifying or self-promoting. Such knowledge has fruits in our living. Humility is the outward expression of this inner self-regard.

C.S. Lewis wrote in “Mere Christianity” that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Authentic humility is rare in our time, but when encountered it astounds. Its fruit is that it allows us to appreciate, respect and be attentive to others. Humble persons do not submit to indignity, violence, tyranny or arrogance. They are not passive. Rather humility is allied with openness to others, patience, and tolerance; it is allied to temperance and seeing reality as it is and not being crushed by that reality. Humility derives from trust in God’s love of ourselves and it expresses itself in the courage to love others. It is made visible when we choose dialogue rather than debate, when we listen to others, when we do not find fault in others, or insist that we are right. Humility is cooperative and speaks honestly without illusion.

Humility derives from the primacy of our relationship with God who loves us into being. Strive not for humility, but rather to open oneself to a relationship with a loving God. Humility follows as the night the day.

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