The great American activist and Servant of God, Dorothy Day, was quite famous for her work with the poor. She was a twentieth-century American version of Mother Teresa, in that she took care of the poorest and most forgotten in New York and Chicago. Like Mother Teresa, this work for the poor often drew curious reporters and publicity. One day, Dorothy Day was sitting with a poor homeless woman at one of the soup kitchens in the city. A reporter walked up and stood respectfully to the side, waiting for the conversation to finish. When Dorothy noticed the reporter, she turned to him and said, “Are you waiting to speak to one of us?”
Speak to one of us? Of course she had to know that the reporter was not interested in speaking with the homeless woman. But Dorothy did not see herself as greater than the poor whom she served – and this is true humility.
Our readings speak about humility. Of all the virtues, humility is the one that is most pleasing to God, because it makes us most like God, Who humbled Himself by His death on the Cross. Humility is NOT the same as being humiliated or embarrassed, and humility is NOT about thinking of ourselves as worthless. Instead, humility means that we know who we are before God – nothing more, and nothing less.
Aquinas said that “virtue is in the middle” – the midpoint between two extremes. And humility is very much in the middle, between pride and false humility. Sinful pride says, “Look at me! I am the best ever!” Remember that catchphrase of the boxer Muhammed Ali? “I’m the greatest of all time!” This is sinful pride – not recognizing that all that we are is a gift from God. But the other extreme must be avoided as well: false humility, when we think poorly of ourselves. How often have we given a complement to someone, and they respond, “Oh, no, I’m not really very good at that.” That isn’t humility – it’s false humility.
So what does humility look like? Here are some characteristics:
First, the humble person does not talk too much about themselves. You may have heard the old joke: a man is at a dinner party and is monopolizing the conversation by going on and on about his accomplishments, his accolades, his bank account. Finally, he wraps it up and says, “Well, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” A humble person does not talk all about themselves, but focuses on others.
Second, a humble person treats everyone the same, whether they are rich or poor, talented or not, good-looking or not. This is what Jesus urges us to do – give a banquet for the poor, that God Himself may repay you. Do we treat our boss the same way we treat our secretary? Do we treat our wealthy brother the same way we treat our brother who is down on his luck? One time, I was speaking with a priest who told me that he did not want to have dinner at parishioners’ houses, so that he wouldn’t be accused of favoritism. I was very impressed by that, but the very next day that same priest told me he had to visit a couple of parishioners’ houses to ask for money for a building campaign! A humble person sees everyone – from the CEO of the company to the man who cleans the toilets – as equal in dignity.
Third, a humble person recognizes that everything they have comes from God. We often talk about “a self-made man” as a term of admiration – “oh, look at what they have accomplished by themselves and their own hard work!” But humility says there are NO self-made men or women, because humility recognizes that God is the source of all of our gifts and abilities.
Related to that, a humble person prays. They recognize that they need God – not as a crutch for the weak, but as desperately as we need air and water. Remember that famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Indiana Jones is right on the cusp of finding the Holy Grail, but first he has to pass through three tests. The first test is a booby trap where his only instructions on getting through are “Only the penitent man will pass”. He says aloud, as he is waiting for the trap to spring, “A penitent man is humble… kneels before God!” And he knelt down right before the saw blade shot out, which would have cut off his head if he was not kneeling! This is a perfect analogy for life – there are many, many dangers for those who stand on their own two feet, but those who kneel in humility before God are shielded from many trials and temptations.
There are many more characteristics of a humble person: for example, a humble person is grateful, able to be taught, not easily frustrated at their own imperfections or the imperfections of others, and rejoices in others’ good fortune. Humility is the root virtue for all of these other good characteristics.
So how do we cultivate it, then? As we cultivate every virtue: practice, and prayer. We pray for it, and we practice it through making humble choices: going to the back of the line, saying hello to the maintenance man, thanking people for small favors, being patient when we are contradicted or offended.
My friends, humility is a virtue that makes us so delightful to God. As St. Augustine said,
“It was pride that turned angels into demons; it is humility that makes men into angels.”