Humility is that slippery virtue: As soon as you think you’ve got it, you’re guilty of pride. One of my favorite saints, St Therese of Lisieux has been accused of pride because she said, “I believe I am humble.” What her critics do not realize is that she uttered those words in the final days of her life after months of excruciating suffering in the final stages of tuberculosis. She had been literally coughing up her lungs for weeks on end and had also gone through the dark night of the soul–cut off from all consolations of faith–feeling herself to be totally abandoned. Then it was that she said, “I believe I am humble.”
Faced with such an astonishing story I hesitate to write anything about humility at all–except to say that there are several things I know are not humility. Piety is not necessarily humility. A person may be very prayerful, but not humble. A humble person will be pious, but a pious person is not always humble. Indeed it is very possible to be proud of one’s prayer life.
Secondly, an obsequious person is not necessarily humble. God does not desire doormats. We do not have to bow and scrape and lick the dust all the time. Its okay to have backbone. God wants women not worms. He wants men not mice. Of course we must be obedient and submissive to those who have proper authority over us, but even this should be a positive engagement of our will–not a slavish distortion or destruction of our will through domination.
Thirdly, humility is not equated to service. A person may have a servant attitude and wish to serve the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless and serve all in a spirit of self giving but even this does not guarantee humility. All of us can think of the person who is quite proud of their record of service and we all know the kind of person who C S Lewis said, “Lives for others, and you can tell the others by their hunted look.”
So what is humility? It is there in the gospel parable about the man who sat at the wrong place at the wedding banquet. Humility is knowing your place. In other words, it is knowing yourself–the good, the bad and the ugly.
Again, St Therese: she said true humility is to acknowledge one’s strengths and goodness as well as one’s faults and weaknesses.
Where do we learn this humility? How do we acquire this self knowledge? I believe confession is the first step. In my experience as a Catholic priest I have far fewer parishioners who need counseling, have personal crises and problems than I had as an Anglican cleric, and I put this down to the fact that from an early age–even the lazy Catholics–have gone to confession and there they learned not only to face their faults, but also to take responsibility for them. A Catholic is far more likely to take responsibility for his wrong doing and realize that he (and no one else) can, by God’s grace, do something about it.
Secondly, we acquire this self knowledge at Eucharistic Adoration and by attending Mass. The Mass, of course, is a liturgical realization of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb–the consummation of all things in heaven–where everyone will be blissfully content because they will be in precisely the place they ought to be in relationship to their Creator and their Redeemer.
A Mass we “come down where we ought to be”–and this is why we celebrate the Mass with due dignity and reverence–because this is our proper and right duty. It is “right and just” as we respond. The confessing and Mass going Catholic–week by week is being led into this place of true humility.
I am convinced that a great number of the faithful are in that place. They are humble–but they don’t know it–and that’s the beauty of humility. It is the virtue of ordinary people who don’t stick out–who don’t draw attention to themselves–because they are already where they ought to be.