‘Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you are content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty’. (Mt 23:12 TM)
Paul, Peter and James in their letters pointed to Jesus as the example of humility. In Jesus God accepted our poverty and humanity. However, Jesus, in his teaching, makes only one reference to humility, as Peterson translates above, but it was exemplified in every day of his life, beginning with his incarnation and exposed in his nakedness on the cross.
Humility may be regarded as the discipleship’s ‘Badge of the Year’ no one wants to wear. In our Western culture it would never appear as worthy of mention on a Job Application, or C.V., or Leadership Credentials required for a C.E.O. The entire business organizational structure promotes quite the opposite mental and psychological qualities of drive, ambition, vision and self-confidence. Encouraging us to deny, or avoid any suggestion we are limited beings. Any reference to humility would be a thumbs down, non-starter.
Why then is humility accepted as a rule in Benedictine training; where wills and emotions are purged by all manner of disciplines and mortifications, being strongly recommended by Ignatius? The simplest and clearest answer is because pride, the opposite of humility, is the root and essence of all sin. Its seeds are arrogance, pomposity, and self-importance that polarize relationships. Pride, being puffed up with self-importance, is an ever present danger to everyone elevated to a public office, with a ‘title’, or uniform.
The word ‘humble, or humility’ comes from humus, or ground, reminding us of our down to earthness, lowly estate. The dictionary defines it as conscious of one’s failings, unpretentious, deferential. However, we are our worst enemies; within everyone lies the seed of ego, which as we grow leads first to self-realization, going beyond self-respect and self-confidence to self-assertion and leading to self-promotion. The Eden story shows us how we want to be like God. Our self-centred-ness puts us at variance with others with a consequent detrimental effect not only on our personal and social relationships but also on our spiritual life.
To quote Thomas Merton, a recognized authority on spiritual life and experience; ‘It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life’, ‘Faith and humility are inseparable’. ‘Humility contains the answer to many problems in the spiritual life’. Our abilities may mark us as ‘different’ to others, but not necessarily ‘better’ than others. We are interconnected and interdependent on others and the daily miracle of life. Take a look at your breakfast table to realize this. We are meant to use our gifts for the benefit of the whole, but we cannot always fix things. We have limitations and are sometimes powerless.
Humility is not self-hatred, or self-rejection and poor self-image. Richard Rohr renowned theologian, in his writing admits ‘I have prayed for one good humiliation a day for years, to watch my reaction to it’. We are impermanent, little, human beings, dependent on God and it will help us and others if we treat ourselves with a good sense of humour and learn to laugh at ourselves.
In his interesting and sometimes amusing book “The Jesuit guide to almost Everything” James Martin SJ, speaking against his own Order, tells the story of the Jesuit, Dominican and Benedictine who died and went to heaven. Ushered into God’s presence God asked the Dominican “What do you believe? And he answered “I believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth”. God asked the Franciscan the same question. He answered, “I believe in your Son Jesus, who came to work with the poor’. Turning to the Jesuit God asked him “And what do you believe?” The Jesuit answered, “I believe…… you’re sitting in my seat!”
Eugene Peterson got to the truth of the verse in Matthew, ‘Do you want to stand out? Then step down….’ The secret of our greatest dignity – is true humility!