When I was in the novitiate, each Monday we were assigned an act of humility. Of the four possible practices, the easiest was to pray Cardinal Merry del Val’s “Litany of Humility.” Some lines from this prayer are “From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus. From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus. That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.” You get the idea.
Years later, one day during a celebration, Sister Frederick entertained us Sisters with a humorous personal story. When she entered the convent and became a postulant, she was assigned a “guardian angel” (a novice appointed to help introduce one to religious life). Her guardian angel gave her a task. She said, “I want to be a nurse. Each day pray the Litany of Humility so that this will happen.” The postulant did as she was told, and her guardian angel did become a nurse. Then Sister Frederick said, “And as for me, others have been esteemed more than I, others have increased and I have decreased, others have been chosen and I set aside, others have been praised and I unnoticed….”
I’ve found that self-imposed acts of humility aren’t really necessary. Life itself provides plenty of humiliations to keep my ego in check!
A recent Gospel reading told of the disciples arguing about who was the greatest. Their words afforded Jesus the opportunity to teach: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:33–35). Apparently they didn’t learn their lesson, for at the Last Supper right after the institution of the Eucharist, the argument continued.
Previously James and John had the audacity to ask for the highest places in heaven. (Matthew’s Gospel protects their reputation by having their mother request this!) Jesus also taught, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
These stories show a lack of humility, a main virtue prized in all religions. Essentially, this virtue is simply seeing yourself accurately, as God sees you. The word humility is derived from humus, which means “earth.” This etymology is a reminder that we are but dust. A humble person does not have an inflated ego, a big head. One of Aesop’s fables illustrates the folly of such conceit:
Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a wolf saw his shadow greatly magnified. He said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as king of all the collected beasts?” While absorbed in these thoughts, he didn’t notice a lion approaching. The lion fell upon the wolf and killed him. Too late the wolf realized that his overestimation of himself caused his destruction.
True humility is also honest. Remember Uriah Heep in Dickens’s novel David Copperfield? He is the epitome of false humility as he protests, “I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person.”
Being humble does not mean denying our good points. Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University long ago, was once a witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer asked him, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness?” The usually modest professor replied, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland said, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”
Saint Teresa of Calcutta offered a succinct description of humility:
“Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”
We are repulsed by people who are arrogant, vain, proud, and self-important. To the Greeks, hubris (pride) was the worst sin against the gods. In the Catholic tradition it was pride that led to the fall of the angels and the fall of human beings.
At the top of this post is a stained-glass window depicting “humility” designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Not surprisingly, it shows the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “handmaid of the Lord.” It was her humility, among other virtues, that drew God to her.
Of course, the humblest person who ever walked this Earth was Jesus. Although he was almighty God, he stooped to become a man and as a man he stooped to wash the apostles’ feet.
• What other humble persons do you know of? Who can you stoop and serve today?