Humility

Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. Is 49:1-6; Ps 138; Ac 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66.80

Today’s second reading on this celebration of the Birthday of John the Baptist quotes John as follows, “I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.” Although John was the greatest prophet in Israel for over four hundred years, he constantly directed attention away from himself and towards Our Lord. Even before his birth he leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary and the unborn Jesus – incidentally a rather striking revelation of the dignity of the unborn child in the sight of God. In directing our attention to Jesus, John showed extraordinary humility, a rather neglected virtue today. So I am dedicating this homily to trying to explain what humility really is, why it is important and how to achieve it.

Humility is not an easy word to define, but most people today would probably associate it with being low, deferential and submissive. Humility conveys the idea of being small, or of making oneself small. Such an understanding of humility may explain why it is rather neglected today, given that the spirit of our present age does not encourage us to make ourselves small. On the contrary, myriad advertising slogans tell us, “You can be whatever you want to be!” We are told to be in control of our destinies, to make ourselves great and win a name for ourselves. What place does humility have in such a world? Indeed, what can humility do for us except inhibit our efforts to excel? Why should we be like John the Baptist?

An initial response to these questions is that we first need to be sure what humility is before rejecting it, but here we are confronted with a puzzle. Scripture reveals that humility is not quite what it seems to be. The humility of the humble person does not seem incompatible with greatness. The Old Testament, for example, calls Moses as the “most humble man on the earth” (Num 12:3), yet Moses confronted an evil king and led a nation out of slavery. The leadership qualities required for these tasks are not what we would normally associate with being low, deferential and submissive – and yet Moses is called the most humble of people. So what then is humility?

This question can perhaps be answered by clarifying what is wrong with humility's opposite, namely pride. All forms of pride are a kind of wrongful and excessive delight in one’s own excellence – and the essential problem with pride is that it is contrary to reason. Pride means taking credit one does not deserve, or falsely exaggerating one’s own qualities, or seeking to diminish the qualities of others. As well as being intrinsically untruthful and unjust, pride is even to the long term disadvantage of the proud person. No one really enjoys the company of a boaster, or someone who is vain about their own looks, or a dictator. Furthermore, since proud people misjudge their own qualities, they tend to make unwise decisions sooner or later, decisions that are often destructive even to their own best interests. By way of contrast to pride, humility means desiring and enjoying one’s own excellence in accordance with reason, that is, in accordance with truth and justice. It does not mean intelligent people pretending to be stupid or the denial of one’s own achievements. A person who completes a great work of art by their own hard efforts, for example, may have a proper sense of satisfaction which is not pride. But a person who greatly admires their own good looks is probably proud because he or she cannot, for the most part, take the credit. Since humility means being grounded in truth about the good things one has and where they really come from, it is also far more open to the good things one could have. Humility opens the way to real greatness, because it is only by the truthful recognition of what we are that we can aspire to what is greater than ourselves. The proud person is preoccupied with the contemplation of a very small object, namely himself, but the humble person can look up at the stars. G. K. Chesterton expresses this well in his famous work Orthodoxy when he says, “If a man would make his world large, he must always be making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility … For towers are not towers unless we look up at them, and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we are … It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything.” Instead of being preoccupied with himself, John the Baptist looked towards Jesus Christ, and in doing so God raised John himself to a glory far greater than he could ever have imagined.

So, given that humility is so great, how do we achieve it? I think that in this present rather narcissistic age, an age which encourages us to look inwards, we need to look for things that take us out of ourselves and give us a sense of awe. The contemplation of some of the wonders of the created world can be a help – perhaps God has put the stars in the heavens for this very purpose. But I think the best discipline is to learn and regularly pray prayers of adoration – adoration that directs our attention to the worship of God rather than ourselves. Here Our Lady is the model, and I would like to finish with an example of a great prayer of humility, the first few lines of the Magnificat. Notice in these words how Our Lady does not deny her own greatness, the blessedness that she has received, but her rejoicing is in God who has worked these marvels for her. “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my saviour. He looks on his servant in her lowliness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed. The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy his name!”

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Pancras Church, Lewes, 24th June 2007

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