Today’s first reading/Gospel is about humility, the foundation of all virtue and the most elusive of the virtues, for as soon as you claim it as your own, it is lost. So, I offer you today a hearty sampling of ‘sightings’ of humility spied by the humble, past and present.
Humility and Reality
St. Augustine praised humility thus:
Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility…Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.
St. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as “keeping oneself within one’s own bounds,” while Trappist author Thomas Merton likewise argues that while pride makes us artificial, “humility makes us real, since humility is simply truth.” Moral theologian Germain Grisez defines “meekness,” Jesus’ beatitude word for humility, as “accepting one’s limited role in the Body of Christ.” And accepting limits means not just less to do, but giving our wholehearted best to that which we are to do. St. John of the Cross deepens this insight when he says that those who are still held captive to a secret pride often avoid the ‘hard labor and unpleasant toil’ of their present duties under the false pretext of ‘humbly’ doing other good things that are themselves not required. Humility, John contends, always returns to embrace with fresh resolve whatever is necessary in fulfilling one’s obligations, especially when they involve what is either unpleasant or unappreciated. Humility does not, John says, pursue superfluous activities that deftly evade the demands of duty in order to satisfy our narcissistic need to do other, more pleasurable or grander things. Rather, humility prays: “I seek to do what you ask of me, O Lord, in the way you ask, for as long as you ask, because you ask it.”
Or, as an undergrad professor I know said after reading a book on St Josemaria Escriva’s spirituality of work, “Nice to know there’s holiness to be found in grading my student’s crappy papers.”
Humility and Jesus
Then there’s this sermon on humility I once heard from an African Methodist Episcopal pastor on a local cable TV channel in Tallahassee. It was the kind of sermon that makes me suddenly search for paper and a pen. He sweated his way through it — it was amazing. A few excerpts in which, though I cannot give you the stunning tones of his raspy chant, I’ll try my best to catch all the colloquialisms:
Humility’s not thinkin’ less of yourself as much as it’s thinkin’ of yourself less. Like Jesus, the really humble man doesn’t care if he’s praised or blamed by others, but only cares about what’s true and right in God’s eyes; only cares about what the heavenly Father thinks. The humble person loves to learn and to listen, to be taught by the wise; he loves to run in the light rather than slither in the shadows; seeks out advice from honest and godly folks who are tell it straight, say it like it is; who tell him God’s way, not man’s way or the devil’s way. And God’s Word strikes the heart, doesn’t just tickle the ears. The humble man puts what he hears into action, does God’s Word, cuz it’s only doing faith that’s saving faith. God loves that kind of faith, humble and busy about the Father’s business. And King David says, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” … And that’s another thing about the humble, they love to hang out with the nobodies, to congregate with the lowly; not just to make themselves look smarter or holier or better, but because they know we’re all equal in God’s eyes; we’re all lowly, dusty, dirty, slimy clay that God cupped and molded and shaped and breathed into with love. And there it is, that’s it! It all boils down to love. Always does. God’s all about love. We can’t do anything for God without love, even our faith, Paul says, has to be “working through love.” And you can’t have humility without love, cuz without love it’s just low self-esteem. Who needs that? God doesn’t want that! When you know your just dust and dirt, but you also know that you’re loved-dust and loved-dirt, then it’s all okay. It’s okay to be nothing when your loved by I AM! … So, humility means loving the right way, loving God’s way, everyday, the Jesus-way. We gotta be like Jesus who, even though He was God — did ya hear me? He’s God! — He was happy to become a slave — did ya hear me? A slave! God a slave for us to save us from our slavery. So much did He love us, He spent all His heavenly treasures on us and became poor, a nobody with nobodies. Became a poor slave, a beggar begging for our love on the Cross. The King of kings became a slave of slaves to make the slaves into kings, into queens. Now that there’s humble love. And we have to, have to, did you hear me? have to be just like Him if we want to be saved. Humble. See, because He saved us by being humble and serving us, we’re saved by being humble and serving Him. Serving each other, especially the lowest. That’s being humble the Jesus-way…
A Humbled Abba
Then there’s the awesome story from the 3rd century Egyptian saint, Antony of the Desert.
Antony once prayed with a tinge of hubris, “Lord, reveal to me who it is that shall stand with me in heaven.”
God answered, “I will show you who in the city is greatest, one who does my will. Go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”
“Who there can shed light upon my request?” Antony replied.
“The cobbler will teach you,” God said.
Antony objected, “What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of truth?”
Antony went, and he tarried outside the cobbler’s store that God revealed to him. Seeing Abba Antony to be one of the desert hermits, the simple man sprang to his feet and welcomed him with joy, asking, “In what way could I be of service to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate, ignorant man, though for the stranger, whoever he is, I offer myself in service for whatever the need.”
“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” Antony said.
The cobbler stammered, “What could I teach you of the way of God? I am but a simple man, a useless servant who does only his duty.”
“Tell me what you do,” Antony asked, “how you pass your day. God knows; He alone weighs and judges things not as men.”
The cobbler replied, “Abba, as for me, good works have I none, for my life is but simple and slender. I am but a poor cobbler. In the morning, when I rise, I pray for the whole city wherein I dwell, especially for all such neighbors and poor friends as I have; after I set to my labor, where I spend the whole day making my living; and I keep far from me all falsehood, for I hate nothing so much as I do deceitfulness; wherefore, when I make to any man a promise, I keep it and perform it truly. And thus I spend my time poorly with my wife and children, whom I teach and instruct, as far as my mind will serve me, to fear and dread God. And this is the sum of my simple life.”
“Thank you, O Lord,” Antony prayed, and embracing the cobbler with abundant tears he him farewell saying, “Thank you, O holy man, for you taught me that with only a humble soul is one able to live in Paradise.”
The Humble Cross
Finally, we return to St. John to listen to his counsels to religious on the right-practices of the humble. Though it’s addressed to friars and nuns, it can be extended to all states of life. Just replace the word “religious” with whatever fits your own state: marriage, priesthood, single life, your career, etc.
The second counsel is wholly necessary for religious so they may fulfill the obligations of their state and find genuine humility, inward quietude, and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you do not practice this, you will know neither how to be a religious nor even why you came to the religious life. Neither will you know how to seek Christ (but only yourself), or find peace of soul, or avoid sinning and often feeling troubled. Trials will never be lacking in religious life, nor does God want them to be. Since he brings souls there to be proved and purified, like gold, with hammer and the fire, it is fitting that they encounter trials and temptations from human beings and from devils, and the fire of anguish and affliction. The religious must undergo these trials and should endeavor to bear them patiently and in conformity to God’s will, and not so sustain them that instead of being approved by God in this affliction he be reproved for not having wanted to carry the cross of Christ in patience. Since many religious do not understand that they have entered religious life to carry Christ’s cross, they do not get along well with others. At the time of reckoning they will find themselves greatly confused and frustrated.