Sermon: The Real Meaning of Humility
Humility is powerful. That’s not how we would normally think about it, but it’s true. St. Vincent de Paul once wrote, “The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility. For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it.” Yet, to the world, humility is often regarded more as a vice than a virtue. The world sees humility as submission and weakness. On the other hand, St. Augustine writes that, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
What, then, is true humility? The Catechism puts it this way: “The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer. Voluntary humility can be described as ‘poverty of spirit.’” I think that you will remember that Christ promised the Kingdom of Heaven to those who are poor in spirit, so we should pay attention to what He has to say about humility!
Real humility is about seeing yourself as God sees you, and likewise for others. It is not about a false sense of personal debasement – seeing yourself as terrible. C.S. Lewis wrote, “True humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; but it is thinking of yourself less.” Humility is about the truth: seeing things as they really are. The humble person is comfortable in her own skin – she knows who she is and recognizes herself as a child of God, and finds joy in that identity rather than in an exalted self-image. In such a soul, humility is a hidden power to transform the world around you.
Humility, as C.S. Lewis said, is about thinking of yourself less. It means having a focus on others. The humble person is positive about the people around him. The opposite of humility, of course, is pride. The proud person is consistently negative about others because they do not match up to his standards or to his own exaggerated sense of self-worth. The humble person, on the other hand, points out and even brings out the positive qualities of others. The humble person is okay with giving others the opportunity to shine (and even tries to create situations where they can do so) because she does not feel the need always to be the best. She takes refuge in the truth about who she is before her Lord and Creator – that her dignity and worth comes not from human achievement but from being a beloved child of God.
The humble person is not selfish. Selfishness is one of the primary manifestations of pride. We are all probably familiar with lots of manifestations of selfishness, but one that we might not think of is bad manners. Good social manners don’t exist because they are absolutely the right thing to do in every circumstance. In southern European cultures, it is considered quite rude to place your hands on the table during dinner. But in Anglo-American culture, it is considered to be poor manners to place your hands on your lap! There is nothing inherently rude about either custom – they exist to make others feel more comfortable. By using good manners, we put others at ease around us and show them that they matter more than our own personal comfort, whether it means keeping our hands where they belong during dinner or a man who removes his hat while inside (a custom that, lamentably, seems not to be observed much anymore).
This humble and selfless practice of good manners is under attack from the omnipresence of interruptive technology. Even people who were formerly punctilious about being considerate of others through good manners now find themselves texting at the dinner table or ignoring the people around them to focus on their phones. Technology – especially in its new-found pervasiveness and tendency perpetually to be interrupting our other human tasks – is a great purveyor of the self-centeredness that is opposed to genuine humility. The humble person recognizes that the person in front of her is more important than the vibrating phone in her pocket.
Another tendency of technology that leads us to focus on ourselves is social media. Now this is ironic, because social media gives you a window into so many other peoples’ lives, so you would think that it would be make you more focused on others. But this is not the case. Social media tend to make people obsessed with how they present themselves. In particular, teens who spend large amounts of time on social media (and social media are very good at getting teens to spend lots of time on them rather than just a little unless their parents carefully regulate their consumption) are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Why? Because they are constantly comparing the real version of themselves with the fake version of everyone else presented on social media.
Social media give you the chance to present the perfect version of yourself. But the humble person accepts who she is and does not seek to create an alternative online identity. “Self-knowledge according to the truth of who we are leads us to act naturally without pretensions or hypocrisy before others, but rather showing them who we really are.” Being honest about who we are “also leads us to be more understanding with the people around us, of their errors, limitations, sufferings, miseries, with empathy, mercy and compassion. Moreover, it enables one to think more of the others than oneself.” Studies have also shown that teens who spend more time on social media are less likely to act with empathy or consideration for others. I am sure that the results are the same for adults! No one is immune from the charms of deceit and vice.
The prideful and selfish person always wants to talk about himself. If we don’t speak about anything except ourselves, it is a good sign that we don’t think about anyone other than ourselves! The humble person, though, directs the conversation towards others – particularly, towards their positive qualities and achievements – rather than herself. The humble person does, though, speak about herself in order to share how God has worked in her life. She speaks about her own experience of God’s love in order to help others to discover that Christ also loves and forgives them.
In addition to focusing on others, the humble person is open to others’ opinions and ideas. This means that younger people should be open to the wisdom and experience of their elders. Last week, I was talking to a young man – 23 years old – and he shared that he likes to spend time talking to older people to benefit from their wisdom and experience. I thought that was neat until I realized that he was talking about me! Nevertheless, I would like to think that I am one of these younger people who needs to be listening to my elders.
Likewise, older people, in order to exercise true humility, also need to be open to younger generations, who bring an exuberance and fresh perspective that is so important for our society. Young people are tired of hearing people complain about millennials and Gen-Zers. If you want them to listen to your perspective, try patiently listening to them as well. Humility can be infectious when you take the time to listen to others and show them that you care about them and value their perspective.
Finally, humility is endangered by rash judgment. When we form our opinions too quickly, we make ourselves the measure of truth and fall into pride. The humble person listens to others without forming immediate judgments. That way, he does not get easily upset from wounded pride and holding grudges that oppose true humility.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ has given us the truest example of humility. He is “the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” Though He deserved a place among the “countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,” “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross,” and so won for us the possibility of exaltation to Heaven. Moreover, in the Holy Eucharist, He continues to humble himself, transforming earthly elements into His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. May He bestow upon each one of us the grace to imitate His profound humility.