For monastics in every age, one of the most sought-after virtues was and is the virtue of humility. From the early desert fathers and mothers, we learn how essential humility is to the vocation of loving and serving God above all else:
Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over all the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”
…[Amma Syncletica] said, “Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.”
St. Benedict, author of the most widely-used rule of life among monastics in the west, speaks at length about the importance of humility. In the 7th chapter of his Rule, he outlines twelve steps towards the attainment of this virtue.
Humility has long been recognized as a key virtue of the Christian life. Jesus invites his followers to take up his yoke and to learn from him, for, he says, “I am gentle and humble in heart….” (Mt. 11:29). St. Paul tells us to “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, whom we remember today, embodies this highly sought-after virtue of humility. Hilda was born into the royal family of Northumbria in 614. She was instructed in the doctrines of Christianity by Paulinus, a companion of St. Augustine of Canterbury, in preparation for her baptism at the age of thirteen. She lived a quiet and devout life at the King’s court for the next twenty years, and then decided to enter monastic life. Her wisdom and holiness soon drew the attention of Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who appointed her Abbess of Hartlepool only a year after she had entered the monastery. There she established the rule of life she had been taught by Paulinus and Aidan, and became known for her humility, her wisdom, her eagerness for learning, and her complete devotion to God’s service.
Some years later, she founded the abbey at Whitby, where both nuns and monks lived under her rule of justice, devotion, charity, and peace. The historian Bede writes of her, “So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties, and take it… [She] was not only an example of holy life to members of her own community. She also brought about the amendment and salvation of many living at a distance, who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness.”
“Hilda was graced with gifts of justice and prudence,” writes modern-day author Sam Portaro, “She was a woman of uncommon common sense. When her own community was divided over the differences between the practices of Celtic and Roman Christianity, a synod was called at Whitby. Hilda was personally sympathetic to the Celtic tradition, but the synod opted for the Roman position. Hilda adapted to that decision and was one of the strongest proponents of peace. She knew there were far more important considerations, that the difference of the two traditions was only a symptom of a much deeper issue—the fundamental issue of a united community.”
What might we learn about the virtue of humility from the life and example of Hilda of Whitby? I’d like to suggest three things.
First, that humility begins with a right assessment of ourselves. “True humility is simply a measure of the self that is taken without exaggerated approval or exaggerated guilt,” writes Joan Chittister, a modern-day Benedictine nun. “Humility is the ability to know ourselves as God knows us and to know that it is the little we are that is precisely our claim on God.”
“I am a very ‘umble person,” says Uriah Heep, the nemesis of David Copperfield in the novel of that name by Charles Dickens. But Uriah Heep’s groveling manner and ingratiating words have nothing to do with true humility. His hypocritical posture of self-abasement and servility is used to manipulate others and to serve his own furtive agenda. True humility does not wallow in self-denigration and guilt; nor does it pretend submission to others in order to serve its own purposes. Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, once wrote, “Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis.”
True humility rises from a right assessment of one’s self, an assessment that is without exaggerated approval or exaggerated disdain. A truly humble person sees herself as one small creature in God’s wide world—a child of God and made in the image of God, but also fallible and weak, in constant need of God’s mercy and help. Although she was born to royalty, Hilda’s life was not one of ostentation or pretentiousness; she chose instead to live a quiet and devout life, a life of devotion, chastity, peace, and love. Hilda exhibited the kind of humility that the 14th-century Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec described as “an interior bowing of the heart and mind before the transcendent mystery of God.”
Humility is not only a right understanding of ourselves, but also a right understanding of others. For the ancient monastics it was the living-out of the conviction that all human beings—every man, woman, and child—are beloved children of God. The life of humility manifested itself in a willingness to learn from others, combined with an unwillingness to stand in judgment of others. Both of these stances—a willingness to learn from others and an unwillingness to judge them—grow out of a self-understanding based upon the grace of God rather than on one’s own virtues or accomplishments.
A story is told of one of the most prominent of the desert fathers, Abba Arsenius. As a young man Arsenius had been tutor for the children of emperor Theodosius I. He was born into the senatorial class of Roman society and received the best classical education. At the age of thirty-four he left all that behind to become a monk and remained one until his death fifty-five years later.
One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”
Humility gives us new eyes with which to see others. The standards of the world no longer apply. We are able to recognize the worth and dignity of every human being, and see Christ in them. We are able to recognize that every person we meet has something to teach us. Humility implies a willingness to learn from others, no matter how poor or simple they may be. In this spirit of humility, Hilda welcomed all—kings and princes, and simple peasants. None were beyond the reach of her compassion.
When the Synod of Whitby chose to follow the practices of Roman rather than Celtic Christianity, Hilda set aside her preference for Celtic ways to work for unity and peace. Humility, like love, “is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…but rejoices in the truth” (I Cor.13:4-6).
Humility teaches us that, since Christ is found in every person, we have no right to stand in judgment of another—nor to despise or disdain them. It refuses to judge another based on things the world values: family background and connections, wealth and possessions, status in the eyes of others, popularity, success, vocation, gender, or any other worldly standard.
Abba Pahnutius, the disciple of Abba Macarius, said, “I asked my Father to say a word to me and he replied, “Do no evil to anyone, and do not judge anyone. Observe this and you will be saved.”
Humility sees that each person is a bearer of Christ from whom we can learn and a child of God whom we must not judge. It acknowledges that none of us is God and no matter the depth of our spiritual practices or our holy habits we will never match the holiness of God. We are always in need of God’s grace and mercy and compassion, and we must always be willing to offer this same grace and mercy and compassion to others.
Finally, humility gives us a profound reverence for the earth and a sense of solidarity with all its creatures. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world, that honors the earth and its creatures. “Humility,” writes Joan Chittister, “is the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centeredness. The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others.”
How do we cultivate the graceful virtue of humility? We might start by making an honest self-assessment, starting with what in us is good, strong, and skilled. These manifestations of God at work in us are cause for rejoicing. We might then consider our weaknesses, our failures and our sins—things we’re not so pleased about. An honest self-assessment helps us avoid an exaggerated view of our goodness and strengths or an exaggerated view of our weakness and need.
We might also consider ways in which we can stretch ourselves, and thereby develop a deeper and more genuine humility. We might, for example, choose to associate with those who are different from us, or really listen to that person who irritates or bores us. We might try to learn something that is difficult for us, or take on some new responsibility that we know will test and challenge us. We might look for a way to stand in solidarity with the marginalized, to come alongside them rather than to extend a hand downward to help. We might think and pray about ways in which we could improve our character, and grow in humility.
Hilda of Whitby, born into a royal family and possessing many gifts, can, by her humble life of prayer and service, show us the way. Pray for us, blessed Hilda of Whitby, that we too may know the grace of true humility.
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