For several years I have wrestled with the question as to what is humility, as God defines humility. After speaking to various spiritual directors, Priests, and even a therapist who councils seminary students, I could not find any satisfactory answers. I have read St. Bernard’s 36th Sermon where he defines humility as “truly knowing ones’ self.” I am aware that Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta is credited with saying that humility means knowing that God is God and I am not. While both of these Saints' comments hint at an answer, their comments do not sufficiently answer my question.
Concerning our world today, I am reminiscent of an old Mac Davis song lyric; “O’ Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, cause I get better looking each day! To know me is to love me…” So, if the opposite of humility is pride, then does this imply humility is a lack of a high opinion of myself? Is humility not wanting to draw attention to myself? Is humility found in silence? I contend that the answer to these questions tends to be no. These actions are associated with the virtue of modesty. I’ll discuss modesty later.
In his 2021 Christmas address, Pope Francis commented, “This day and age seems to have forgotten humility, or to have merely relegated it to a form of moralism, emptied of the disruptive energy that it contains,” and “But if we were to express the entire mystery of Christmas in one word, I think that the word ‘humility’ is the one that can help us the most.”
Deacon Matthew Newsome, in his article entitled, “The Virtue of Humility” (Published on August 26, 2016, by WCU Catholic Campus Ministry) states:
“The Catechism defines humility as “the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good.” So humility is less about recognizing how lowly we are than about recognizing how great God is. If we know that God is the author of all good, then we know that we are not. Humility is about living in truth. It is about recognizing who you are before God. He is the Creator. You are a creature. He is infinite. You are finite. He is great. You are small. He is the source of all goodness. You are the recipient.”
Deacon Newsome’s comments fit well with Pope Francis’ comment that we must be on guard to not confuse our acts of moral relativism with the essence of humility, which is to recognize that God is the author of all good. Because of this confusion, we sometimes think humility is never offending anyone, staying silent, or simply never looking up and keeping our eyes focused on our shoes. We must also remember that while God gave Adam and Eve dominion over all creation, and the fruits within the Garden of Eden represent the abundances of graces God wished to bestow on mankind, there was one thing God did not give man, as represented by the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, moral order (i.e., knowledge of good and evil). The setting and defining of moral order belong to God, and God alone. Hence, we are all called to recognize His supremacy over all mankind because God specifies the moral order over all of His creation.
So, where do we learn about true humility and modesty? I contend that we must study the greatest and 2nd greatest Saints in Heaven. The greatest Saint in Heaven is Mary, the Mother of God. The 2nd greatest Saint in Heaven is St. Joseph, Mary’s husband and step-father to our Lord, Jesus. We can study these Saints through the writings of mystics whose stories have been revealed. These sources include—but are not limited to—for example, “The Mystical City of God” by Venerable Mary of Agreda; and “The Life of Saint Joseph” by Maria Cecilia Baij, O.S.B.
In my study of Mary and St. Joseph what stands out first is that God created them with a mission in mind. While Catholics and Jews differ on some things, the idea of each of us having a mission is common. The Jews believe that the rational soul is a piece of God Himself and assigned a mission to complete during its time on earth. If the mission has not been completed that soul could be sent back to earth by God to achieve its assigned mission. Jeremiah states, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” (Jeremiah 29: 11) We Catholics also believe that we have a role to play while on earth, but we will not be sent back if we don’t complete it. We call these roles vocations. Yet, God in His infinite wisdom ensured that we do not all have the same vocation. St. Paul teaches us that, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” (Romans 12: 4–5) I often mention to people that God made everyone good at something, but he did not make us all good at the same thing so that we would need each other. Our mission and vocation on this earth cause a cross-dependency on each other that fosters a community. We call this community the Church.
God began grooming Mary and St. Joseph for their missions in poverty. Sometimes, we mistakenly think of poverty only in economic terms, but poverty can occur in faith, hope, etc. Poverty is the result of our broken human natures which results in our broken world. Why poverty? Poverty leads to dependency on someone or something else outside of ourselves who are capable of satisfying our needs to the point of creating a dependency. For example, if I become seriously ill, my hopes of being cured may be pinned on a competent medical doctor. Mary and St. Joseph, in their poverty, were dependent upon God.
Further, poverty is defined to mean detriments that reduce our relative contentment. There are unique detriments because contentment is relative to each person. These detriments can range from minor to major, which results in needs to be fulfilled. An example of a minor need can be to regain the use of my hand that is less than normal functionally because it has a splinter in it. I need to remove the splinter and the detriment of using my hand is satisfied. On the other end of the spectrum would be the loss of a loved one—for example—a parent. The loss of a parent causes a detriment to one’s contentment and the need cannot be satisfied by one’s self and may require dependency on a higher power or other people to satisfy the need. Associatively, detriments are positively correlated to anxiety, depression, and dependency because as the severity of the detriment increases we have less and less personal control to satisfy the need. Detriments to our contentment are what we call sufferings.
In their dependency on God, Mary and St. Joseph strived to please their benevolent benefactor and provider who in turn granted them graces which resulted in their great virtues. In short, God gave Mary and St. Joseph the graces they needed to achieve His will since in their poverty they could not complete His will on their own. And, what is God’s will? God’s will is to virtuously love and serve Him and others, and to bring all creation back to God within the context of the vocation (i.e., mission) and charisms we have been given. This type of love is called agape love. Agape love is not an emotion or an appetite (e.g., eroticism), but a self-sacrificing love to address the needs of another. In other words, another’s needs must take priority over our wants. Further, this priority must be outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused.
The addressing of another’s needs is done through the performance of charitable acts. Dr. Edward Sri, during a class I took from him, once said, “We must love those that don’t believe they deserve to be loved, and we must respect those that don’t feel they deserve respect. In this way, we realize God’s divine pedagogy.” I believe that the pedagogy Dr. Sri spoke of was for our benefit, not another’s benefit. In short, the performance of these charitable acts teaches us humility by placing the needs of others ahead of ourselves at the expense of our pride. Therefore, true humility is the performance of charitable acts, and not the simple acts of moral relativism as pointed out by Pope Francis.
By way of example, when St. Joseph found out that his wife, the Virgin Mary, was carrying the Christ child in her womb and would be the mother of God, he resolved to become her total servant and performed all household tasks (e.g., cooking and cleaning) that would normally be completed by the mistress of the house. Mary, who consistently referred to St. Joseph and her spouse and master, became annoyed that St. Joseph would relinquish his responsibilities as head of the household to be her servant and perform tasks that she felt were hers to perform. In the writings of the Venerable Mary of Agreda, we read that Mary prayed to God by first recognizing His greatness by identifying herself as simply dust and ashes, and then by making her petition known:
“In her affection on this account, the heavenly Lady turned to the Lord with humble complaints, and besought Him to oblige Saint Joseph not to hinder Her in the exercise of humility, as She desired…Humility makes all prayers effective and inclines the immutable Being of God to clemency.”
In short, Mary prayed for the restoral of God’s moral order in the functioning of the Holy Family.
In answer to Mary’s prayer, the Lord instructed the Guardian Angel of St. Joseph to convey the following to him:
“Do not frustrate the humble desires of Her who is supreme over all the creatures of heaven and earth. Exteriorly allow Her to serve thee and interiorly treat Her with highest reverence, and at all time and in all places worship the incarnate Word. It is his will, equally with that of the heavenly Mother, to serve and not be served, in order to teach the world the knowledge of life and excellence of humility. In some of the work thou canst assist Her, but always reverence in Her the Lord of all creation.”
It can be surmised that humility is the performance of righteous acts—performed out of love for God and neighbor—known as Charity. Moreover, humility must be practiced with the complimentary virtue of modesty.
The Blessed Mother is the hallmark of modesty. Modesty is written about in the Catechism:
CCC 2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
CCC 2522 Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.
In studying the writings of the mystics, Mary—after she had been turned over to Simeon and Anna, the prophetess, by her parents at the Temple at the age of 3—was envied by the other girls with whom she lived because of her intellect, kindness, etc. The other Temple virgins accused Mary of several bad actions and they complained to Simeon and Anna. When Mary was confronted by Simeon and Anna about these untruths, she denied nothing and remained silent. It wasn’t until, through divine revelation, that Simeon and Anna learned the truth about Mary and the lies of the accusing Temple virgins. When Simeon and Anna learned the truth they prepared to discipline the girls who had made these false accusations. Mary asked that the girls not be disciplined, and continued to ask for forgiveness from these girls for bad actions she did not commit.
Based upon Mary’s actions while living in the Temple, and considering that Jesus was born divine yet acquired his human nature from Mary, is it really surprising that Jesus would have remained silent in front of the Jewish religious authorities and government officials when interrogated at the time of his paschal mystery? Jesus—in a similar fashion to Mary—waited for the revelation of His truths until the resurrection.
Within the functioning of the Holy Family, it becomes apparent that Mary and Jesus knew all things, yet St. Joseph was—at times—in the dark. For example, when Mary carried Jesus in her womb she knew from the time of her fiat that the child was immaculately conceived. St. Joseph suffered tremendously, yet silently by which he received many graces that added to his virtue. One scholar suggests that St. Joseph—while very confused and hurt—believed that it was more probable that Mary could conceive without a conjugal relationship with a man than that Mary could have ever sinned.
During this period of Mary knowing the truth and St. Joseph's sufferings, both remained silent. Mary waited for God to send an Angel to disclose to St. Joseph that she was to become the Mother of God and that she carried the Christ child in her womb.
Personally, I strive to achieve the virtues of St. Joseph, and among these virtues are humility and modesty. I am consecrated to him. However, I will never achieve this goal. Some may call it foolish to strive after a goal that can never be met, yet that remains my goal. Why? St. Joseph amazes me. There is only one person who ever held authority over the Virgin Mary and Jesus who is God, at the same time both were obedient to him, St. Joseph. Moreover, St. Joseph was a simple man. He was not ordained to any religious office, nor was he considered by those who knew him as a great scholar because no one knew about his tremendous intellect. He was a very good, humble, and modest man. Once, God gave Mary a glimpse of St. Joseph’s soul and she said it was indescribably beautiful! When Mary told St. Joseph about this soul—not revealing that it was his— St. Joseph remarked that perhaps one day he could have a soul like that.
St. Joseph, pray for me as I strive to be like you!