Humility, the most fundamental virtue


In our secular and competitive world, it appears that what really matters is to be the first, to be number one, to be in the center of the photo or selfie. For many among us, what counts is “I,” “me,” and “mine.”

In our world, pride reigns!  Pride, however, cannot make us happy or less unhappy, because it is truly an evil and a source of other evils. How important it is, then, to have the right medicine to conquer pride, that is, humility. What is humility?

Humility is a radically essential virtue for women and men of good will, believers, Christians. Humility is not only an important virtue, but also an absolutely necessary virtue for all. Humility is a moral virtue, that is, a good operative habit, a firm disposition of the soul, a part of the virtue of temperance, the cardinal virtue that moderates our passions and drives. St. Thomas writes:“Humility makes man capable of God.” It is the basis of all virtues, including the theological virtues that precede humility in excellence. It means “to walk in the truth about God and about ourselves; and the more we know God, the more we know ourselves” (St. Teresa of Avila).

            Humility is the fundament, the basis of all virtues. “Humility is the teacher of all virtues; it is the firmest foundation of the heavenly edifice; it is the Savior’s own magnificent gift” (Abba Nesteros in John Cassian’s Conferences, Fifteenth, On Divine Gifts). It is, like all virtues, closely connected with charity. Charity is the virtue of virtues, which is needed by all the virtues to be perfect and saving. Charity – love divine – gives life and turns the virtuous acts into steps of love toward heaven.

            Humility is a necessary virtue. It is like a basic column (after grace) of the spiritual building of our lives. It is a condition for the practice of all virtues, which are connected, especially charity: “humility is the home of charity; charity without humility is left defenseless facing all dangers” (St. Augustine). Humility is “the wet mother of charity” (St. Catherine). It is not a sad virtue, and it is linked to gratitude and to magnanimity.

            Humility moderates our disordered desires for individual greatness and excellence, helps us know our fragility, our poverty before God. Humility means to see ourselves as we are, that is, as human persons, as creatures, as children of God – and as sinners.

            Humility is not opposed to authentic self-esteem. In his fascinating book on virtues as Happy Ideas (Ideas felices), Jean-Louis Brugues OP speaks of humility as “just self-esteem.” It is the Christian name of self-esteem as human beings, creatures and children of God.

            The two pillars of St. Catherine of Siena’s spirituality and life are knowledge of God and self-knowledge. God said to her: “I am He-who-is; you are she-who-is-not.” Knowing God through faith makes us realize that he is everything and we are nothing: everything comes from God and every good thing we do comes from God’s grace and love – and from our humble and poor cooperation with them.

            Humility makes us compassionate: “In humility regard others better than yourselves” (Phi 2:3). The example of the saints: they accuse themselves and excuse others before God. “Considering our miseries, we learn to be merciful with the others’ miseries” (St. John of Avila).

            For an honest person, a believer, a Christian, to be humble is an essential element of his/her lifestyle. The Sacred Scriptures invite us often to be humble. Ben Sirach tells us to be humble and to conduct our affairs with humility (Sir 3:17-18, 20). The wonderful spiritual/moral program of life from Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mi 6:8).

 The Lord Jesus invites us to be humble and to practice the virtue of humility before God, and before men and women (cf. Lk 14:1, 7-14). Jesus, God-man, took our flesh, was humble, humiliated, and died for us (cf. Phl 2:1-11). “The humility of Jesus: in Bethlehem, on Calvary… In the Most Holy Host more than in the crib, and in Nazareth, and on the Cross. He humbled himself until those extremes by reason of his love for you” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, Camino).

Jesus asked his disciples to be humble, to want not the first, but the last place; to be like a child – childlike (cf. Lk 9:46-50). St. Peter asks us: “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet 5:5).

 The way to the truth, to God, St. Augustine tells his friend Dioscoro, is this: “First, humility; second, humility; third, humility” (Epist. 118, 22). To possess inwards and outward peace, our Lord highly recommended three things: “The first is love for one another; the second, detachment from all created things; the third, true humility, which is the main practice and embraces all the others” (St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection).

In the Dialogue of Carmelites of Georges Bernanos, the chaplain tells the young and shy Carmelite nun: “One is always unworthy of receiving anything, because we never receive anything but from God.” We are God’s servants, God’s useless servants, and the more useless we are, the more useful we are for the Kingdom. “Loving humility is a powerful force, the most powerful” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov).

We are asked to be humble and, therefore, never, never to humiliate others: “To humiliate a person is a profanation” (Brugues). However, if we are humiliated, we try to take it peacefully, and as an occasion to purify our lives, as medicine against pride, as penance for our sins, as a step to imitate the humiliated Suffering Lord.

The virtue of humility is God’s magnificent gift. We humbly ask for it in prayer. “The prayer of the humble will penetrate the clouds” (Sir 35:21).

(Image: OpenClipart-Vectors