As a Benedictine Oblate I have made a commitment to live out monastic values and practices in my everyday life. Perhaps one of the most profound values for me is humility. Humility does not elicit much awe or admiration in our culture. It is a value that seems outdated in our world of self-empowerment and self-esteem boosting, negating much of the me-first values that our culture holds so dear.
Some of the reservations about humility are legitimate, especially for women. Abuse of humility can encourage passivity, low self-worth, and be used as a tool of oppression, imparting fear, guilt, or an abiding sense of failure, in an effort to remind people of their proper “place” and keeping them from rocking the boat or challenging institutions or those who hold power. There is also such a thing as false humility, when someone denies how good they are as a means to make themselves look even better.
I believe, though, that humility has gotten a bad reputation and is perhaps needed now more than ever.
The word humility is derived from humus which means earth. Humility is at heart about being well-grounded and rooted. Humility is also about truth-telling and radical self-honesty. It is about celebrating the gifts we have been uniquely given in service of others, as well as recognizing our limitations and woundedness.
As creatures, we were created in the image of God, which imbues us with profound dignity. The reality of our nature too, is that we each carry a brokenness that affects how we deal with others. To deny this truth is to perpetuate the suffering that comes as a result of our limitations. Truth-filled living is the soul of humility. We are not divine, we are creatures. We are incomplete without God, we are not the source of our own being, we are broken and wounded.
However, humility demands that we also celebrate our blessings as a part of truth-telling. It teaches us to recognize that our gifts are not of our own making but are gifts we receive and held in trust to give to our communities. Our gifts are not for ourselves alone.
Humility means setting aside the mask — a kind of nakedness where we allow ourselves to be seen without social convention, presenting ourselves in all of our vulnerability. Thomas Merton described this as the difference between the false self and true self. The fruit of humility is being at home with ourselves, our true selves, and being who God calls us to be because we have let go of living up to the expectations of others.
Honoring our limits as creatures can be deeply liberating. We must have patience with the unfolding of our lives and the world. God’s kingdom unfolds in God’s own time. We discover that we are not solely responsible for saving the world. Acknowledging our limits, can liberate us from our compulsions and frantic busyness and lead us towards recognizing our interdependence. Each of our gifts contributes to the whole. St. Benedict wrote about the ladder of humility in his Rule. He says that as we ascend so our capacity for love expands.
The practice of humility also leads us to a spirituality of radical newness and reversal. In John’s gospel, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, giving us a vision of a new order, and image of encountering God in the most unexpected places.
What if we truly practiced humility and truth-telling? What if our churches lived out of an awareness of the gifts and limits of institutions, allowing God to truly surprise us with newness? What would it mean for entire nations to practice humility, honoring our collective gifts and limits?
-Christine Valters Paintner