Humility, along with simplicity and charity, is one of the virtues that constitute the spirit of the Daughters of Charity.
This chapter will be divided into three parts: 1) a brief study of humility as understood by Saint Vincent; 2) a description of a horizon-shift that has taken place in theology and spirituality between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries and that affects our way of viewing humility today; 3) an attempt at retrieving humility in contemporary forms.
Humility as Understood by Saint Vincent
For Saint Vincent, humility is the recognition that all good comes from God. He writes to Firm in Get on March 8, 1658: “Let us no longer say: it is I who have done this good work; for every good thing ought to be done in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (SV VII, 98-99). “Be very much on your guard against attributing anything to yourself. By doing so you would commit robbery and do injury to God, who alone is the author of every good thing,” he writes to Jacques Pesnelle on October 15, 1658 (SV VII, 289). God pours out his abundant gifts on the humble “who recognize that all good which is done by them comes from God” (SV I, 182).
Our sins too should help us grow in humility (SV XI, 397). Humility is recognition of our own lowliness and faults (CR II, 7), accompanied by exuberant confidence in God (SV III, 279; V, 165; II, 233, 336; X, 201; IX, 382). In writing to Charles Nacquart on March 22, 1648, about the gift of vocation, he states: “Humility alone is capable of receiving this grace. A perfect abandonment of everything that you are and can be in the exuberant confidence in your sovereign creator ought to follow” (SV III, 279).
Humility involves voluntary self-emptying (SV V, 534; XI, 61, 312; XII, 200). This entails loving to be unknown and abandoned (SV VII, 312; X, I29, 152; XII, 709). It means avoiding the applause of the world (SV I, 496; IX, 605; X, 148), It involves taking the last place (SV IX, 605) and loving the hidden life (SV IX. 680).
Humility involves esteeming others as more worthy than yourself (SV V, 37; IX, 303). In this regard, it is a communal virtue, not just an individual one. We are to regard the Company as the least of all (SV IX, 303; X, 200; XI, 60, 114-15, 434; XII, 438).
Saint Vincent gives numerous motives for the practice of humility:
- He notes that Jesus was humble and happy to be seen as the least of men. (SV I, 182, 534; XI, 400)
- It is the characteristic virtue of Jesus (SV XI, 400), and should be the characteristic virtue of a true Daughter of Charity. (SV X, 527)
- The saints too were humble: “It is the virtue of Jesus Christ, the virtue of his holy mother, the virtue of the greatest of the saints.” (SV XI, 56-57)
- God blesses humble beginnings. (SV II, 281; V, 487)
- “Humility is the origin of all the good that we do.” (SV IX, 674)
- God has called us, lowly people, to do great things. (SV X, 128, 198)
- It is the arms by which we conquer the devil (SV I, 536; XI, 312), since the devil and pride are the same. (SV IX, 706)
- We cannot persevere without humility. (SV I, 528; X, 528; XII, 304)
- It brings all other virtues with it. (SV XII, 210)
- It is the foundation of all evangelical perfection, the node of the whole spiritual life. (CR II, 7)
- Everyone loves it (SV XII, 197), but it is easier to think about than to practice. (SV XI, 54)
- It is the source of peace and union. (SV XII, 106, 210)
- If the Company possesses humility, it will be a paradise: “If you establish yourselves in it, what will happen? You will make of this company a paradise and people will likely say that it is a group of the happiest people on earth.” (SV X, 439)
- Heaven is won by humility. (CR II, 6)
Saint Vincent suggested many means for acquiring humility:
- We should do acts of humility daily. (SV IX, 680; XII, 716; I, 183)
- We should confess our faults openly (SV V, 164; XI, 54) and accept the admonitions of others. (CR X 13-14)
- We should desire to be admonished. (SV IX, 382)
- We should pray to our Lord and the Blessed Mother as models of humility. (SV IX, 680; XI, 56-57)
- We should believe that we are the worst in the world. (SV X, 552)
- We should recognize that everyone has his faults; then there will be little trouble excusing others. (SV X, 438)
- We should preach Jesus Christ and not ourselves. (SV XII, 22)
- Superiors should so act that others will not be able to tell that they are superiors. (SV XI, 346; IX, 302)
A Significant Horizon Shift: A More Positive Attitude Toward Creation and Less Emphasis on Sin
The struggle with Jansenism greatly influenced seventeenth-century thinking. Theologians and spiritual writers, while combatting Jansenism, were influenced by many of its presuppositions. It was “in the air they breathed,” so to speak. Like Manicheanism and Albigensianism, two of its predecessors, it had a very negative view of created reality. It was overly rigorous and focused on sin. The twentieth century has brought a renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person and on the goodness of creation. This is particularly evident in Gaudium et Spes (9, 12, 22) and the writings of John Paul II1. Theologians and spiritual writers take a much more positive attitude toward “the human.” The human person is seen as the center of creation. Created realities are extensions of his being and ways in which he celebrates and shares God’s gifts.
The shadow side of this horizon-shift is that it has brought with it a deepening loss of the sense of sin. Consequently, among young people especially, there is a diminished consciousness of the need for mortification and penance. The twentieth century has witnessed increased sexual permissiveness in society and a weakening of family structures. In some parts of the world, one out of two marriages ends in divorce. The number of single-parent families is huge. In some cities more than half the children are born out of wedlock. Abortion is widespread.
Both the bright and the shadow side of this horizon-shift have implications for the virtue of humility.
Because of the horizon-shift just mentioned, it is difficult for modern men and women to accept Saint Vincent’s language when he speaks about humility. We tend to cringe when he calls himself the worst of all sinners and speaks of his community as the most wretched in the world.
Yet when he emphasizes humility, prescinding from the language in which he speaks, Saint Vincent penetrates a basic, abiding New Testament truth. Luke’s gospel, in particular, tells us that God comes to the lowly, the poor of Israel, those who recognize their need for him and long for him. In this sense, humility is “the foundation of all evangelical perfection, the node of the whole spiritual life” (CR II, 7). In this sense too, Saint Vincent went to the core of the gospels when he said that “humility is the origin of all the good that we do” (SV IX, 674).
Moving beyond Saint Vincent’s language and a rhetoric that was characteristic of the seventeenth century, it is important to articulate an understanding of humility and the contemporary forms that it takes.
a. Humility is a recognition of our creatureliness and our redeemedness, both being gifts of God’s love.
We are completely dependent upon the Lord. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
There is nothing that we have not received. “Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13). Whatever we are, whatever we do, whatever we possess comes from the Lord.
We are also very much dependent on others. The modern age is increasingly conscious of the interdependence of all men and women. The humble person recognizes interdependence both as a sign of his limitedness and as a source of enrichment. We need others and cannot do without them. In solidarity with them, we journey toward the kingdom.
Besides being created beings, we are sinners who have been redeemed through God’s gracious love. “Al] have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. All are now undeservedly justified by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24)_
Perhaps as a distorted reaction to an overemphasis on sin in the past, the modern age has difficulty sustaining a sense of sin. Yet sin, if we are alert to it, shows itself in numerous different ways in our lives: in our prejudices, in our tendency to categorize other people indiscriminately, in our speaking lightly about others’ negative points, in our slowness to pray, in our inability to get excited about gospel values, in our selectivity in reading the gospels, in our unwillingness to share what we have with the poor, in our hesitancy to divest ourselves of power and to stand with the needy in their misery, in our compliance with unjust social structures. In face of all this, the Lord forgives us eagerly and gives us life in Christ Jesus. It is not by the works we do that we are saved, but rather by the gift of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 2:21-22). Otherwise grace is not grace (Rom 11:6).
b. Humility is gratitude for gifts. In the New Testament, gratitude is the opposite side of the coin from humility. The person who has received all stands before the Lord in a spirit of thanksgiving. In this sense, thanksgiving is the central Christian attitude, which we daily celebrate as eucharist.
Mary epitomizes this attitude in Luke’s gospel:
My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit finds joy in God my Savior
for he has looked upon his servant in her lowliness.
All ages to come shall call me blessed.
God who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age on those who fear him.
Mary cries out in praise and thanksgiving for the many gifts that God has given her. She recognizes God’s gifts, without diminishing or denying them, and responds with gratitude. In this she echoes the psalmist: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods for his loving kindness endures forever” (Ps 136:1-3).
This type of gratitude characterizes the poor. Henri Nouwen writes:
Many poor people live in such close relationship with the many rhythms of nature that all the goods that come to them are experienced as free gifts of God. Children and friends, bread and wine, music and pictures, trees and flowers, water and life, a house, a room with just one bed, all are gifts to be grateful for and celebrated. This basic sense I have come to know. I am always surrounded by words of thanks, “Thanks for your visit, your blessing, your sermon, your prayer, your gifts, your presence with us.” Even the smallest and most necessary goods are a reason for gratitude. This all-pervading gratitude is the basis for celebration. The poor not only are grateful for life, they also celebrate life constantly2.
Today those responsible for formation know the importance of an awareness of one’s gifts as part of a positive self-image. But, almost in spite of the horizon-shift described above, the problem of negative self-image, which has nothing to do with genuine humility, remains a persistent one.
Recognizing that all is gift, the humble person will be eager to avoid comparisons. He or she will receive life with gratitude, leaving judgment to the Lord, as the gospels frequently exhort us to do (cf. Mt 7:1-5). Pride loves comparison. The avaricious person may be satisfied when he possesses much; the proud person remains restless as long as anyone else has more. Humility spurns comparison. It can focus on the good in others, just as in oneself, and thank the Lord for it.
c. Humility involves a servant’s attitude. This is central in the New Testament, especially for those who exercise authority. “If anyone wishes to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of al!” (Mk 9:35). In John’s gospel Jesus demonstrates this for his disciples through a parable in action when he washes their feet.
Do you understand what I just did for you? You address me as “teacher” and “Lord,” and fittingly enough for that is what I am. But if I washed your feet—I your teacher and Lord—then you must wash each other’s feet. What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done so you must do. an 13:12-15)
We are called, like Jesus, “not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28). The expectation of the Church in the modern world is that authority figures will be collegial, dialogic, humble servants. An ancient Christian baptismal hymn captures this insight into Jesus and applies it to his followers:
Your attitude must be that of Christ. Though he was in the form of God he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross. Because of this God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every other name, so that at Jesus’ name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord! (Phil 2:5-11)
As servants, we must be willing to do humble things. Today, leadership tasks that were once prestigious, like administration, may truly be humble tasks, exposing the servant-leader to much criticism while engaging her in many meetings and humdrum paper work that bring little positive feedback.
d. Humility also entails allowing ourselves to be evangelized by the poor (“our lords and masters” as Saint Vincent liked to call them). This insight, already present in the early Church and echoed later by Saint Vincent, receives great emphasis in Latin American theology and in an ecclesiology “from below.”
Not only do we as ministers teach others, we must allow them to teach us. As Augustine put it, there are seeds of the Word everywhere and in everyone3. Only the humble can discern them. We must hear God speaking to us as we see the willingness of the poor to share the little that they have, as we see their gratitude to God for the simple gifts that he gives them, as we see their hoping against hope that God will provide, as we see their reverence and care and respect for us as well as for God. The poor will preach to us eloquently if we allow them.
As you can see, my sisters, humility is utterly fundamental for Saint Vincent. It is the foundation of all evangelical perfection; it is the node of the whole spiritual life (CR II, 7). He says with great clarity: “Humility—let it be your password!” (SV XII, 206).