I suspect we all spend a good amount of time and energy wondering what others think about us – our friends, supervisors, teachers, coaches, neighbors – and try to present ourselves in the best way possible so that these people think well of us. There is a whole advertising and fashion industry built on convincing us that, if we wear the right clothes, drive the right cars, etc. people automatically will think well of us. We do, of course, live in a culture which thrives on the superficial. We are even treated to the rather bizarre spectacle in these days of candidates for political office seeking to convince the voters that they have the experience and wisdom to safeguard our government and society by seeking endorsement by popular celebrities in the fields of entertainment and sports who have no recognizable expertise in the weighty issues facing us, and whose lifestyle often cautions against entrusting anything of value to them.
In the midst of all this, do I ever stop to take account of what God thinks about me? In the end, that is, of course, the only opinion that will matter. And God sees the heart. No amount of superficialities will ever blind God’s penetrating gaze.
This is the challenge presented to us, I believe, by the emphasis on humility in the instruction given us by the Word of God today. It is a virtue largely absent from consideration in the culture. And yet, on September 4 2016, three years ago, thousands of people were in Rome to celebrate the elevation by Pope Francis of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to the number of the saints –a woman who arrested the world’s attention by her simplicity and humility.
So, do we ever consider the virtue of humility? Certainly our first reading today recommends it and promises that, through humility, we will be loved and will find favor with God. St. Benedict, in his Rule, takes up humility in what is by far his longest chapter, giving twelve steps or signs that one is acquiring the virtue of humility. When all is said in done, I believe that true humility means that we see ourselves as God sees us. Since God can never be deceived and is Truth itself, to see ourselves as God sees us means that we have a true and accurate knowledge of ourselves, and thus can live truthfully, and thus can find peace.
St. Benedict’s first step of humility is that we keep the fear of God always before our eyes, and he tells us that to do that we have to keep our thoughts in order and struggle against our self-will. If we wish to develop this virtue, we have to be mindful, in the first place, of two things: we are creatures, and we are redeemed sinners. We are therefore entitled to nothing, but have received everything freely from God’s love and mercy. The minute we start to think that God owes us something, or that we can go ahead and chose what we want without concern whether it is what God wants, we set ourselves up for emptiness, unhappiness and disappointment. But we tend to do that all the time because, well, everyone else is doing it; or, since we allege it is not nearly as bad as what others are doing, God should let us get away with it. After all, no one got hurt – physically.
Thus one important component of humility is our recognition of our limitations and weaknesses. We all have them, and will have them for a lifetime. There are two challenges which arise from our weaknesses. On the one hand, we can ignore our weaknesses and fail to take seriously their amazing ability insidiously and surreptitiously to take control of our actions so that, almost without knowing it, our life becomes controlled by our vices. On the other, we can be overwhelmed by them and begin to think that we are hopelessly bad people and so give up on the quest for goodness. Authentic humility acknowledges that we have weaknesses, that we have sinned, yet also confesses that God loves sinners and has never stopped loving me. As the Apostle says: God proves His love for us in this; that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Thus true humility can give me the courage to acknowledge my sins and vices and not let them control my life; and true humility can keep me from losing heart, because it keeps me confident of God’s never-ending love and forgiveness for me, a sinner.
So humility has something to do with acknowledging our weakness. But to stop there would be to have an incomplete, a distorted understanding of humility. Too often we find people thinking that humility has something to do with self-abasement, with deflecting praise, with pretend that we are not really as good as we know we are. That is not true humility.
Someone who is truly humble can easily acknowledge gifts; can admit calmly that he or she does some things very well, perhaps better than most people; that he or she is talented. If the person has the virtue of humility, he will also acknowledge that all these gifts and talents are gifts from God. By acknowledging them and developing them, he is not being proud, but is giving praise and thanks to the giver of the gift. These gifts and talents do not make us a better human being than others, but they do give us a responsibility to use these gifts for others.
This is why I believe true humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us, in other words, to see ourselves truthfully, as we really are, and to live in accord with that truth. A truly humble person is centered and integrated, and is so aware of both his faults and his talents, that he does not need to depend on the often shallow and passing approval of others – like the people seeking the first place in today’s gospel. Rather, we can acknowledge, that, as we have just heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, by God’s grace and baptism we have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven… Let us, then, in all humility, live this truth.
Let me conclude with the final verses of St. Benedict’s chapter seven, on humility, for he outlines for us a beautiful vision of the perfection of humility which God can, and wishes, to work in each one of us: “Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear. Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins.”
Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B.
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