We don’t speak much about “humility” these days. For some of us, “humility” might even be an unfamiliar concept. And yet the Greek word that Saint Paul uses to describe this fruit of the Spirit would have been familiar to his readers. The word “humility” appears nine times across the New Testament.[i] Depending on the particular Bible translation, the Greek word is translated as mildness, gentleness, meekness, or humility. None of these attributes gets much positive press in our own time, so we still need to do some homework to understand the word and its invitation for us today.
First, some important context: Saint Paul uses the word “humility” when he is facing capital punishment. He is certainly not a tepid personality, and, in his writings, he can be strident about matters he believes to be good, true, and faithful. Saint Paul tenaciously meets his detractors – and the threat of his own death – face-to-face. And yet we hear him speak of “humility” as a virtue to be cultivated.
So too with Jesus. We read of Jesus using this word when he speaks the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek,” or other translations read, “Blessed are the gentle,” or “the humble,” and at very adverse times.[ii] And yet Jesus is clearly no pushover. In a very paradoxical way, Jesus speaks of the blessedness of gentleness, meekness, or humility as exactly the strength of character needed when facing times of great difficulty, even in suffering.
Here I will translate this fruit of Spirit as “humility,” not as a stand-alone virtue but as a quality of character that needs to be in our soul’s repertoire for us to be fully and freely alive. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”[iii]
The fruit of humility begins with the soil, with the ground of our being. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” or “near the ground,” humus being the fertile earth. Humility comes from being well grounded in life – this life and the next. In the creation account in the Book of Genesis, we learn we have been created in the very image of God, shaped out of the dust of the ground.[iv] To see the power, and beauty, and splendor that can emanate out of us is a living reminder of how God lives within us. On the other hand, we are also created with the limitations, eventual diminishment, and death that pertains to all creatures. The rabbis teach, “Each of us should have two pockets.” In one should be the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other we should have written, ‘For me the universe was made.’” We have this dual identity, and it is essential we stay on speaking terms with how God has created us in all its complexity.
From the sixteenth century, the story is told of Michelangelo who had been at work atop a scaffolding 50 feet from the floor, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After four years, another day had come to an end. Weary, sore, and full of self-doubt, he climbed down to eat a lonely supper. Michelangelo, whose brilliance as an artist was unmatched, wrote to a dear friend a sonnet that ends with, “Rescue me now. I am not in a good place. And I am no painter.”[v] No painter! I feel only compassion for Michelangelo, and yet he is so much more accessible to us as a person when we know that he, too, lived his life in the balance between immeasurable greatness and humbling limitation. We all have our own versions of this same equation.
Humility reminds us how we all are so much the same, mostly. Jesus preaches one Gospel to princes and paupers alike, and yet Jesus’ Gospel also reverences how we all are so uniquely different from one another. Do not compare yourself. Jesus offers a curious comfort when he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father… So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[vi] If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me – “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows” – I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So, what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question? In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; so they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made one farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. A common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “You are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Hmm.
Hidden in this curious metaphor is a word of comfort. When you look at the media reports, and see the myriads who live with egregious injustice and suffering, which may seem both appalling and monochrome, they may appear to us not unlike sparrows, one suffering face indistinguishable from the next. To God they have inestimable value, each one, individually. We should remember that precious love as we look upon the masses of suffering people – how we pray for them and act on their behalf, on behalf of at least some of them. God knows them and loves them each by name.[vii]
Some day you also may feel like one of those sparrows as you face your own suffering that is piercing, tedious, and isolating. There may be for us all, sooner or later, a comforting reminder in this metaphor about the value even of a sparrow: that God knows and loves each of us by name and sees in us something distinctive, precious, and of eternal value. In humility, we remember that we are all sparrows – meaningless at times in the accounting of others, but beloved of God.
If suffering teaches humility, so too does another experience we, more likely than not, would wish to avoid: failure. Humility grows in the compost of mistakes and failure. Clearly, we do not always succeed in life, realize our goals, earn the highest marks, much as we may desire. Paradoxically, where I find myself most gifted, insightful, and compassionate has often grown from the redemption of my failures and suffering. Perhaps this is also true for you? Be generous with yourself. The Argentinian poet, Jorge Luis Borges, writes in his Conversations at Eighty about grace in misfortune.[viii] “Misfortune, defeat, humiliation, failure, those are our tools – we are given mistakes, we are given nightmares – and our task is to turn them into poetry. …Every moment of my life is a kind of clay I have to mold, I have to shape, to lick into poetry.” I am not suggesting we emulate our mistakes and failures; but I am saying the last word may be our gratitude for what all has made us real. This is how God knows us. It can also, with time, be what helps us to know ourselves as we truly are.
In humility we recognize that we hold no monopoly on being the giver, the one in power, the one in charge of the situation. Jesus said that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”[ix] We can fall prey to a kind of pride that sees ourselves as a generous giver but as a reticent receiver. We deny others this blessing if we obstruct their share of being both a giver and a receiver in our presence. Saint John Chrysostom, the 5th century Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote that “Jesus, as both a pastor and a friend, not only poured out love but also made himself dependent on others. He possessed nothing, so for his very survival he had to rely on the kindness of his friends and disciples. And in his gratitude for all he received, he affirmed them as true friends and true disciples.” Humility trades in both giving and receiving. It is only when we accept our part in both giving and receiving that we can grow to our full stature as creatures of the earth.
Embody humility. Your body will be your best teacher of humility, if you let it. Your own body is your most intimate companion, and, inevitably, it has good days and bad days. James Joyce wrote tongue-in-cheek about a Mr. Duffy, “who lived a short distance from his body.”[x] Stay on good speaking terms with your body, and you will sensitively help others do the same. Saint Paul, who, in his earlier days had worshiped in the Temple in the Jerusalem, came to see the Temple, not as something to be rebuilt in Jerusalem but rather something to be reborn within us. “Your body,” he writes, “is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”v So how do you practice that embodiment? At the most basic level, revere your body, and offer others this same courtesy. Our body is the edifice in which we enter life, in which we are shaped and formed in life, in which we practice life, in which we will part from this life. Treat your body kindly, respectfully, gently, gratefully, in a holy way, and do others the same. We are precious in God’s eyes, and God embodies us, in both our strength and our weakness. Whatever our body’s repair, whatever our age, we are God’s temple.
Back in my 20s, I took on a spiritual discipline to become humble. I remember a couple of my close friends telling me they found my humility insufferable. “Get over it,” they said. They were right. You really cannot work on being humble. But you can acquiesce to the terms by which God has given you life, which is frontloaded with limitations. Unless we die suddenly at a younger age, we will die diminished at an older age. It is lovely to hear Jesus’ gentle invitation to children – “Let the children come to me.”[xi] Jesus speaks this, not just to 8 year olds but also to 80 year olds. No matter our age, we are children of God, whom God adores. Cooperate with God. Saint Teresa of Avila said that “the only sure test of oneness with God is growth in love and humility.”[xii] Give into your life, on whatever terms it is given to you. This is humility.
We cannot force the fruit of humility to grow in our lives, any more than we can force a plant to blossom and thrive. But we can be attentive to the conditions of life that invite growth, conditions present every day. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century French Cistercian abbot, was asked to name the four “cardinal virtues” for living a holy life.[xiii] In classical philosophy these four virtues were prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Saint Bernard answered, as he saw it: “Humility, humility, humility, and humility.” May the fruit grow within you, from the rich ground of your being.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- Think of those whom you admire and whom you identify as humble. Why?
- In your experience, what is the difference between humility and humiliation? How might they be connected?
- What for you is the door to humility? How can the door get blocked or barred? How is the door opened?
Here is a prayer of Dag Hammarskjöld, sometime Secretary General of the United Nations:
Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;
Humble hearts, that we may hear you;
Hearts of love, that we may serve you;
Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen.
Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), from his autobiography, Markings.
[i] The Greek word is πρᾳότης (praotés), e.g., “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ – I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold towards you when I am away!” (2 Corinthians 10:1).
[ii] Matthew 5:1-11.
[iii] Matthew 11:29.
[iv] Genesis 1:27.
[v] Numbered fifth among Michelangelo’s poems, this was written to a friend, Giovanni Da Pistoia, in 1509.
[vi] Matthew 10:24-33; Luke 12:6.
[vii] Isaiah 43:1; John 10: 14-15. See also Matthew 10:30.
[viii] Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the brilliant Argentine poet, writer, and philosopher. in his Conversations at Eighty.
[ix] Acts 10:35.
[x] James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish novelist, in A Painful Case.
[xi] Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16.
[xii] Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), writing in her Interior Castle.
[xiii] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaking of “cardinal virtues: “cardinal” from the Latin cardo, hinge.