There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ The replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’
I read this story in Benedicta Ward’s fabulous translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and felt moved to share various insights I have received in the past on humility. I fear writing them, because they stand as fearful challenge to me (James 3:1-2), but if I apply that too strictly I’ll d never open my mouth. So I’ll write this as a petition.
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Thomas Merton, commenting on a saying of St. Antony of the Desert, said that humility, the foundation of all virtue, is also the most elusive of all the virtues. Once you claim it, you’ve lost it. Aquinas says that humility consists in keeping oneself “within one’s own bounds,” accepting one’s limited role in the Body of Christ and prompt fulfillment of daily duty. Augustine says that humility is truth, i.e. the capacity to embrace the truth about God, the world, oneself and one’s neighbors. The humble desire to know the truth, to face the truth and to place the truth in the service of their neighbor’s good and God’s glory (which is really the same thing). But Augustine also says that truth must be joined to charity, as truth without charity is arrogant and cruel, while charity without truth is indulgent and spineless.
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My wife has a marvelous thought about humility. She always says that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” By that she does not mean that they lack self-knowledge. Rather, she means that they are self-less, not drawing attention to themselves but shifting the center of gravity to others. She says Philippians 2:3-4 captures this dynamic perfectly (which is why we had this reading in our nuptial Mass):
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
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An AME pastor I knew in Florida had a great turn of phrase on this brand of humility: “The heart of humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Am I right? When I let God turn my ME right side up, my ME becomes a WE. Amen? Brethren, can you see? It’s love that sets us free! Hallelujah! Let’s all now praise God, saying, “Glory be to Thee, Oh God, Thou One in Three, who makes my ME bend the knee! Can we all agree? Praise God! AMEN! and AMEN!”
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Sometimes there is a confusion between humility and having low self-esteem, which I take here to refer to a distorted psychological self-concept that rests one’s sense of worth, self-respect and dignity on the shifting sands of others’ perceived expectations and judgments. Those who have low self-esteem are tortured at the thought of their flaws and failings and often seek to gain attention by constant self- or other-deprecating remarks, turning the focus either on, or away from, their own imperfections in order to fill their own ego-starved need for attention or affirmation. Those who are virtuously humble rest their self-concept on their inalienable and God-given dignity and, well-aware of their shortcomings and eschewing the need to prove themselves to others, rely only on the infinite mercy of God to give them rest from the burden of their failings. When they self-deprecate, it is not to gain or deflect attention, but rather is a serene confession of “the way it is.” Though they strive mightily for perfection, the humble are simply honest about themselves and their limitations; are sincerely contrite at the thought of their faults and failings; are reconciled to their imperfect “sojourning” state; and are joyful at each fresh opportunity to be reconciled with God and neighbor. Their self-less ego naturally seeks others’ well-being as part and parcel of their own. Being strangers to envy and resentment, they rejoice that others possess goods they themselves do not possess. Why? Because they realize that, in the final analysis, all is sheer grace from God, and every grace given to them is a grace given for the benefit of others. They quite naturally respond to not with the word “mine,” but with the word “thine.” When you’re with the humble, you feel built up, lighter, more human and more grateful for the good you have. When you’re with those beset by low self-esteem, you feel drained, weighted and guilty for the good you have.
At least that’s been my experience.
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A number of years ago I met a Sudanese priest (in the U.S. to appeal for financial support of the missions) who really embodied for me the humility I am speaking about. When I left his presence, I felt like I could be better. When I asked him if he would share with me his vocation story, he said something I found both challenging and enlightening. It went something like this:
My vocation story was very simple. No tortured struggles Americans enjoy hearing so much. In my village we had a need for a priest. I knew growing up I had the gifts to be a priest and I loved God. So for me it was a simple decision. I became a priest. What I think makes deciding a vocation so hard for Americans is that when you start with questions like — What is best for my happiness, What is best for my needs — and then you try to go searching for God’s will buried somewhere in there, it’s very hard to find. It’s a tortured struggle. If you start with what God wants and how I can respond to the needs of those that are around me — which is really the same thing — then you look at the gifts you have, feel where your love is leading, and it makes seeing your calling really quite simple. Don’t start with questions of fulfilling yourself, but with desires of offering yourself. Then set your hand on the plow and don’t look back, like Lot’s wife did. You can’t go wrong. And don’t worry, you will naturally find fulfillment because love fulfills and is your real vocation. What does St. Augustine say? He says, ‘Love, and then do what you will.’ Not, ‘Do what you will, then love.’ It’s hard, but so simple.
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St. John of the Cross offers a pithy description of the humble soul that has been purified in the purgative nights. He contrasts the humble and the proud.
Souls who are advancing in perfection at this time act in an entirely different manner and with a different quality of spirit. These souls humbly and tranquilly long to be taught by anyone who might be a help to them. This desire is the exact opposite of that other desire we mentioned above, of those who want to be themselves the teachers in everything. When these others notice that someone is trying to give them some instruction, they themselves take the words from their very mouths as though they already know everything.
Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. Because they consider their deeds insignificant, they do not want to make them known. They are even ashamed to speak of them to their spiritual directors because they think these deeds are not worth mentioning. They are more eager to speak of their faults and sins, and reveal these to others, than of their virtues. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.
These souls would give their life’s blood to anyone who serves God, and they will do whatever they can to help others serve him. When they see themselves fall into imperfections, they suffer this with humility, with docility of spirit, and with loving fear of God and hope in him.