Humility is the virtue which is perhaps more easily misunderstood and underappreciated than any other. Our culture values personal confidence, self-belief and resolution, and rightly so. And we are acutely aware of the psychological dangers of low-self-esteem, with which so many people struggle today, especially the young. Yet true humility is not in opposition to a positive attitude and healthy self-confidence. For Christian humility consists of nothing other than honest self-knowledge, a recognition of who and what one is in relation to God, to the world, and to one’s fellow human beings.
According to Thomas a Kempis, “Our highest teacher and law-giver, Jesus Christ, urged us to learn the virtue of humility. For whoever cultivates this marvelous virtue will quickly arrive at spiritual perfection. But without humility, no amount of study of sacred Scripture or theology, nor any efforts at good works are able to achieve anything lasting. In vain are all our labors, unless they are accompanied by humility!”
One of the important themes of Thomas was that of the imitation of Christ—that is, looking to Jesus himself to find all virtues exemplified and demonstrated in their most perfect degree. And Thomas identifies humility as the primary and most foundational of these virtues. Of course, Jesus clearly did not lack self-confidence, self-belief and a willingness to take the initiative. He, more than anyone else who has ever lived, was a born leader. Yet there is nothing in his words or actions of pride, vanity or arrogance. He, as true God, knew himself and all others perfectly. And for this reason, he loved with complete perfection and without reserve. It was this perfect love which impelled him to the very highest act of humility of all—that of his glorious Incarnation and blessed Passion. And by these supreme works of Divine humility, we have all been saved.
To understand the value of the virtue of humility and the dangers of its opposing vice, pride, it is worth recalling the literal meanings of both ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’. Virtue, from virtus, means, literally, a strength; and vice, from vitium, means ‘a weakness’. For the virtues all strengthen our character, whereas the vices systematically weaken us. This is particularly the case with pride, the primary and original vice. For pride always weakens us; it exposes us to spiritual and emotional injuries in innumerable ways.
Sometimes, we imagine that pride and strength of character tend to go hand in hand. But this is simply not true. If we consider carefully what happens when we feel some hurt or pain or when we suffer some emotional injury, we will very often find that it is really ‘our pride that has been hurt.’ The more proud a person is, the more sensitive they become to taking offence. Being proud makes us dependent upon the estimation and actions of others, or upon our own falsely constructed narratives of our own value and status. But humility, the opposite of pride, is always perfectly secure. Since it is based on honest-self-knowledge, it relies upon nothing false or unstable. It is without illusions, but sees things as they really are. Thomas describes such humility as the “stronghold of all the virtues,” a force which “triumphs over all enemies.”
To be truly humble means to recognize our weaknesses and failings honestly. But it also means to recognize our strengths, giftedness and blessings with equal honesty. It is through this means that we can relate to others authentically, and see in others their own giftedness and blessings. According to Thomas, “when two humble people are associated together, they will always get along well with each other. But when two proud people are associated together, they will compete with each other and dissentions will inevitably arise.” It is worth examining ourselves frequently and critically, and in particular considering those relationships we have with others which are somehow not working well, and have become sources of vexation to us. Very often, the solution to such troublesome relationships lies in simple humility. When we begin to look at our own failings without dissimulation and defensiveness, we become much more able to tolerate and forgive those of others.
By a certain irony, people who suffer from pride themselves are often more likely to notice pride, as well as other faults, in others. But when we cultivate humility within ourselves, we can then see more clearly the virtues of others. And all the virtues and vices are inter-related, and may be said to be ‘contagious’. One virtue encourages other virtues, just as vices also encourage other vices. This is especially true of humility and pride. When we exhibit genuine humility in our relations with others, we will almost always find it reciprocated, sometimes in quite marvelous and surprising ways. And there is nothing which disarms a potential foe as effectively as real humility.
According to Thomas, “humility is indeed the most powerful weapon against the wiles of the devil.” The genuinely humble person is ready to acknowledge faults and failings within themselves. And the honest recognition and acknowledgement of such faults and failings is the first and most important step towards their correction. The truly humble are also always ready, and indeed eager, to acknowledge the virtues and merits of others. This acknowledgment of the virtues of others assists us wonderfully in cultivating the same virtues in ourselves.
How easily it can be, at times, to do the very reverse!—to recognize the faults of others, and to overlook or excuse our own. Yet this is not how it should be, for God has given each one of us primary responsibility for our own moral character, not that of others. While it is true that we should encourage others to be the best we can, our main task is to correct ourselves. For indeed, each of us can see into our own hearts much more clearly and deeply than we can see into the hearts of anyone else, and so we are each uniquely qualified to recognize our own faults, rather than those of others. By doing this carefully and honestly, we can make steady growth in the virtues and become more and more the person whom God created us to be. But this can never be the result of our own efforts alone, but relies on the grace of God. This grace is always freely offered to us. All we need to do is open our hearts to receiving it.
One of the very best ways of opening our hearts to this Divine grace is, of course, prayer. In this context, it seems fitting to conclude with a prayer written by Thomas himself, a beautiful exhortation to the soul for humility and compunction.
O my soul, submit yourself humbly and unresistingly to the will of God. For the sake of God, submit and resign yourself to all things and events of this created realm. Strive to think of yourself as the least of all things, and hold yourself unworthy even of the light itself. Recall that you have, by sin, offended God and his saints. Often, indeed, you have failed in your duty of due reverence.
Flee, O soul, to the refuge of tears, and implore Heaven’s mercy with great contrition of heart! Beg God to forgive you and treat you with mercy for anything you have done that is contrary to his divine and immeasurable kindness.
Before the final day of this mortal life and the dark horror of death arrives, with tears and prayers strive to reconcile yourself to the face of your merciful Creator. Commit yourself each day to changing your life for the better, so that, little by little, you may arrive at true sanctity.
For further reading on the subject of humility, click here for Humility and the Elevation of the Mind to God by Thomas a Kempis, available for the first time in the English-language by TAN Books, edited by Fr. Robert Nixon, O.S.B.