No doubt you remember Uriah Heep, the character in Dickens’s novel David Copperfield who kept referring to his “umbleness.” All the while, Mr. Heep was nothing but a scheming hypocrite. His humility was fake, used as a tool to manipulate others into thinking well of him. People who are truly humble are admired. Those who are puffed up, conceited, and self-centered are not. Facetiously, Ted Turner commented, “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect.” Both St. Augustine and Confucius claimed that humility is the foundation of all virtues.
What exactly is humility? Its etymology provides a clue. The word is derived from “humus,” which means ground. Humble people are well-grounded in that they are aware of the truth about themselves—their strengths and weaknesses. They see themselves as they really are, no better and no worse. In particular, they realize that whatever talents or gifts they possess are from God and they are grateful for them. They also acknowledge when their success is due to the aid of other people.
What else are humble people like? They do not expect others to kowtow to them; rather they enjoy serving others. They do not think “Me first” and take the best piece of cake, the best seat, or the easiest job. Humble people do not boast or brag and are quick to praise others. They do not claim to know everything but are willing to seek and take advice. They are teachable. They also laugh at themselves and are not afraid to appear foolish. I remember a time when a volunteer was asked for to come up onto a stage and do something silly (I forget what). People in the audience froze, but one sister courageously walked up. I loved her for it.
I think of the humility of St. Pope John Paul II. He could have hidden his disability from Parkinson’s disease near the end of his life, but instead he continued to make appearances, touring the world.
Perhaps the most challenging act that takes humility is asking forgiveness. It is embarrassing to admit we’ve done wrong in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It also takes humility to apologize to another human being. We like to think we’re perfect or at least almost perfect.
St. Bernard said that the definition of humility is Jesus. Although he was God, he “humbled himself” to become a human like us in order to save us. Moreover, he encouraged us to imitate him: “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”
His mother, Mary, was also humble. When her cousin Elizabeth praised her, she responded, “He who is mighty has done great things for me.” When Jesus was speaking, Mary didn’t push her way through the crowd to get to him but sent a messenger. I can’t imagine that after Jesus changed water into wine at the Cana wedding Mary went around bragging that it was because of her request. During the fourteen century a popular Marian artwork was the Madonna of Humility. Instead of portraying the Mother of God on a throne as usual, she is seated on the ground or a low cushion.
Humility appears as one of the triad God expects of us: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
Here are three other pieces of wisdom from Scripture regarding humility:
“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” (Proverbs 27:1-2)
“But the greatest among you shall be your servant. “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
+ St. Julie Billiart endured countless humiliations at the hands of clergy without complaining or fighting back. What example of humility can you share?