Deep humility is one of the most difficult virtues to understand, choose and live. As the picture of this virtue is painted for you, do not be surprised if you find yourself struggling with it. The truth is that each of us desires true humility in our lives on the deepest personal level of faith. However, we are often initially turned off by the virtue of humility on account of selfishness and basic sinfulness. It takes a very holy person to long for humility with every passion and desire of their heart. Therefore, as we begin to look carefully at the virtue of humility, don’t be surprised if you find yourself struggling with it interiorly. Don’t be surprised if your heart is not immediately ready to follow along and love the virtue of humility. This is a normal reaction. In fact, when you find yourself uneasy or uncertain about various aspects of humility, this is good. It’s good because the uneasiness is a sign that you have discovered an area of your life that needs growth. Be open to that.
The first step you must take, if you desire to walk down the path to holiness, is to understand what humility means. But that’s not easy! Understanding humility takes grace. Therefore, it may be useful to begin by reminding yourself that humility is the “mother of all virtue” and is the foundation of holy living. Without humility, you cannot obtain holiness. So the first step is to understand this virtue.
However, once you understand humility, you will also be faced with the difficult challenge of embracing it. As outlined in the previous chapter, understanding comes first, then choosing. Of course, it’s much easier to choose to embrace humility when you see it as the most foundational good that you can choose.
When you come to understand humility and subsequently make the choice to embrace it, you may still struggle with it. This is because you may discover that your desires do not always line up with your intentions. You may find your heart torn between what you should desire and what you actually do desire. It is hard to choose humility over pride. However, it’s even harder to desire it as you choose it! Our minds often know what we should do, but our flesh and disordered desires do not always follow along. Recall the words of St. Paul, “So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:21-23).
Regardless of where your desires are drawn, hopefully you at least know that humility is a virtue and is something good you must seek. Humility is a cure for selfishness and will help to clarify your thinking so that you can more fully entrust yourself to God and His holy will.
As you begin looking at the virtue of humility, it is important to make a conscious choice. You may find that, as you read this chapter, the virtue of humility seems more like an ideal lived by the saints than a virtue that you can actually obtain. If that is your experience as you read this chapter, do not worry. Do not get discouraged by the high calling of humility. Rather, allow this glorious virtue to leave you hopeful and encouraged as you discover the areas in your life that need spiritual growth.
Perhaps this choice is best made with a prayer. Take a moment to pray this prayer to God with sincerity:
Prayer for the Embrace of Humility
Lord, I know that humility is good and is therefore good for me. I know that I must choose this virtue and so I do choose it. Please help my mind, heart, will, emotions and my entire being to be open to the beauty of this glorious gift. Help me to become convinced, with every fiber of my being, that humility is the foundation for a life of holiness and happiness. Soften my heart, purify my desires, and bring light to my mind, dear Lord. Give me the grace I need to choose to embrace the glorious gift of humility. Jesus, I trust in You.
Understanding and Obtaining Humility
How do you obtain humility? This is a very fundamental question to answer. If you are willing to pray the “Prayer for the Embrace of Humility” with sincerity and are willing to begin the path to humility, then it is essential that a clear picture of this virtue be painted. Humility is the first and most important step toward a life of holiness. It is the foundation of all virtue.
St. Augustine said in one of his letters, “The way to Christ is first through humility, second through humility, third through humility” (Letters 118:22). He also said, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” St. Thomas Aquinas defines it this way: “Humility means seeing ourselves as God sees us: knowing every good we have comes from Him as pure gift” (Summa Q161). It is pride, more than anything, that tempts us to see ourselves through the eyes of the world and through the lens of others’ opinions. If you want to see yourself in the light of truth, you must humbly seek to see yourself only as God sees you. His understanding of your soul is all that matters.
One helpful way to discover the meaning of humility is through a powerful prayer, “The Litany of Humility.” This prayer was first published in the Handbook of Prayers (Studium Theologiae Foundation, Manila, 1986, and in a later edition, by Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago, US.) and was attributed to Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930), Cardinal Secretary of State of the Holy See under Pope Saint Pius X. The rest of this chapter will focus upon this litany, carefully reflecting upon every line. By carefully looking at this litany, you will be invited to understand this virtue in a very practical way so as to more easily enable you to choose it.
The Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
Anyone who sincerely prays this prayer will be struck by its power and challenged by its content. Humility is no easy task! It is not something you can simply decide to do one day and accomplish the next. True humility requires great surrender and detachment in life. In addition, it requires much grace.
This litany reveals three essential attributes of humility. First, you must be purified of selfish desires. Second, you must be purified of selfish fears. Third, selfless desires must increase in your heart. If you are willing to allow your desires and fears to become transformed by God, you will begin to discover a new freedom from the subtle tendencies of selfishness. The journey may be challenging, but the rewards are glorious.
Purification of Selfish Desires
Do you desire to be esteemed, loved, extolled, honored, praised, preferred to others, consulted and approved? Honestly, unless you are already a saint, then you will most likely discover that these selfish desires are alive in your heart. In fact, most people may respond by saying, “Yes, I desire these ‘good’ things! Why shouldn’t I?” Perhaps you even find yourself surprised that these desires are selfish at all.
The above desires are seen by many as ideals to aim for rather than as sins of pride to be avoided. However, how does God see them? What is the truth about these desires? Let us look at each one of them to paint the picture of humility. If one or more of the sections that follow especially affects you, read it more than once and spend time with it before moving on.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me Jesus:
Within the secular world, growing in the esteem of others is often seen as a key to success and advancement in numerous ways. Gaining status and recognition produces prestige and notoriety. It means you have earned people’s respect and admiration for what you have done or who you are. So what is wrong with this? The answer is in the desire, not in the fact of being esteemed. In the business world, for example, striving to gain recognition to better market your product or services is quite common and necessary at times. However, there is a difference between working to achieve success within a business (or other daily endeavors) and taking your personal identity in that success or failure. Even the most “successful” person must strive for personal humility and the purification of his or her desires. Therefore, to make steps toward humility, the main areas to examine are your personal desires and personal identity.
For example, Saint Mother Teresa was highly esteemed by almost everyone and that esteem opened the door for her to produce an abundance of good fruit through her Christian service. Her heart of radiant love and compassion shone so brightly that she was respected by Christians and non-Christians, by presidents and kings, by the poor and the rich and by saints and sinners. However, Mother Teresa was also exceptionally humble. One key to her humility was that she did not do what she did so as to gain the esteem of others. She was not trying to climb the ladder of social notoriety for selfish reasons or so as to feel as though she had personal value. Rather, she was exceptionally free from the desire for esteem even though she was, in fact, greatly esteemed by many. So again, humility is found in the purification of the desire, not in the fact of being esteemed.
Think about this carefully. Imagine you did something that thrust you into the public spotlight and led many to hold you in high esteem. Would this satisfy you? Would this make your life better? Would this fulfill you and make you happy on the deepest level? Be careful before you answer those questions. The truth is that even though it may feel good to be admired and respected, those feelings are passing and should not become the foundation of your happiness in life.
Conversely, imagine that you worked very hard at something but your work was perceived by most people as a complete failure. How would that perception affect you? Would the lack of respect and admiration be the cause of your unhappiness and cast you into despair, anger and depression?
Naturally speaking, our fallen human nature tends to care much about what others think of and say about us. However, what should concern us? The humble person cares little about whether another thinks highly of them. But make sure you understand that statement correctly. Sure, it is healthy when someone sees authentic goodness in you, identifies that goodness, and even compliments you because of true virtue. But this recognition ought not to be sought out so as to build up your own self-image. You must never allow yourself to be controlled by the opinions of others, even when they have good opinions of you. Rather, praise from others should be accepted humbly when it is true simply because it is true. Additionally, it is good for the other person to see authentic goodness in you and to rejoice in it. Your primary joy, then, is a result of another person perceiving authentic virtue in your soul and lovingly acknowledging it. However, your worth is not found in the esteem of others or lack thereof. It is found in God and how He sees you.
On the other hand, if someone does not have esteem for you or is highly critical and condemning, humility enables you to listen to what they say and, if there is merit to it, rejoice in the insight given to you by their criticism. If there is no merit to what they say or think, then their criticism must not affect your peace. Criticism will negatively affect you when you struggle with pride and when you have an unhealthy desire for the esteem and praise of others. However, criticism will not affect you when you truly have a humble heart that frees you from the burdensome desires for the praise and esteem of others. Humility is freeing and makes you content only believing the truth of who you are in the mind of God.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me Jesus:
Do you want to be loved? Of course you do! This is a natural desire and is central to your human nature. You were made to give and receive love. So why would you want to be freed from the desire of being loved? The answer requires a very subtle distinction.
Love is not something that you can demand or expect. Love, if it is authentic, must be freely given and freely received. Therefore, it is good to desire authentic love, given freely and in a selfless way. However, the “desire” for this form of love is not a selfish desire. It is not a desire that leads you to say, “I want your love because I need to be loved by you.” Rather, it is a desire that leads you to say, “If you freely choose to offer your love to me…thank you! I am most humbled and grateful.” Authentic Christian love cannot be demanded, expected or required of another person. Therefore, when you pray to be delivered from the “desire” of being loved, you are praying to be freed from a desire for selfish love. Interestingly, if you have a selfish desire for the love of another, it can never be fulfilled. Selfishness simply cannot satisfy us. The only authentic way to enjoy the love of another is to first be purified of the desire for that love. Then, and only then, will love be experienced for what it is: a freely given gift for which your only response is gratitude.
In the reception of such a gift, it is normal for a person to allow their unselfish desire to receive the love of another. However, they will not depend upon it in a selfish way, demand it, or even expect it. Even among spouses, there must remain a healthy detachment so that the other remains completely free from pressure to offer a true and pure love. Perhaps that is difficult to comprehend, but if you understand that true love must be freely given, then you will better understand that freedom from the desire for love actually helps to free others to offer you their love. Only when love is freely offered to you, and not demanded by you, will you be in a position to open your whole being to receive another’s gift of love. Love that is freely offered to you by another will even consume and satisfy your healthy and holy desires. However, your desires will not attempt to demand this form of love from another. Instead, your desires will only rejoice in this form of love.
From the desire of being extolled, honored, praised, deliver me Jesus:
Similar to being esteemed are the desires of being extolled, honored and praised. If you have these desires, then you desire more than the esteem of others, you also desire to have that esteem proclaimed in a public way. This reveals an even deeper attachment to the opinions of others.
The person who desires to be extolled, honored and praised struggles with taking their self-worth in the public image that is portrayed about them by others. One danger in this is that if this person is publically criticized, it can become devastating to them. In addition, when they are praised and honored by others in a public way, they feel as though their value has increased. Sadly, by embracing these selfish desires, they become dependent upon the spoken opinions of others. That is a heavy burden to carry for the person because it leads to anxiety, fear, worry, anger and the like.
This selfish desire also leads a person to live on a very superficial level. It produces a disingenuous cover that is easily seen through by others and it often produces a sincere disrespect that others secretly have of them. The praise that they may receive or, at very least, the praise that they seek is nothing more than mere public flattery and lacks a clear depth of truth. Nevertheless, as long as they are flattered, they are “happy” in a superficial way.
The humble person is able to hear and accept the praise of others and rejoice in any truth that is spoken simply because what is spoken is authentic and is an act of love. They rejoice not because they are being publically praised; rather, they rejoice because they are being freely loved by another. In this case, their joy is more about the goodness of the other and the love that they share than it is about any compliments they receive.
Take the perfect example of our Blessed Mother. When she visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth cried out “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). She went on to say, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth proclaimed Mother Mary as “blessed” and offered her great praise. Our Blessed Mother, for her part, did not come to Elizabeth seeking this honor or seeking to be extolled by her. However, she did receive this praise since it was true. Humility rejoices in what is true and then responds by offering all praise to God for that truth. Thus, our Blessed Mother’s response to the praise of Elizabeth was a song of praise to God: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed…” (Luke 1:46-48ff).
From the desire of being preferred to others, Jesus deliver me:
A classic example of the desire of being preferred to others is found on the playground at any school. When kids organize a game and they begin to pick sides, almost every child desires that he/she be picked first. The longer one sits waiting to be picked, the more humiliated one feels.
This is quite understandable since children most often have not yet become free from selfishness. In fact, becoming free from selfishness, and in this case the selfish desire of wanting to be preferred to others, is part of the normal process of growing in maturity. Little by little, every child must strive to overcome the struggle of feeling excluded, rejected, less important, and the like. Each must work to rise above these self-image struggles and become free from them. This is part of growing in an authentic and healthy self-image.
So it is with all of us. The humble truth is that it does not matter if others prefer you or not. There is one thing that matters: What does God think of you? This is the only measure that you should use to look at your life.
With that said, it is important to gently confront all selfish tendencies you have. The question to ponder is this: Why would I desire to be preferred to others? The answer is that the person who struggles with this desire has allowed him/herself to take their self-worth in the preference of another. Therefore, they see themselves through the lens of the preference or rejection of another. If they are preferred, then they feel happy and feel as though they have value. If they are not preferred, then they are sad and feel as though they have less value. Again, this is a false measure of one’s value and is something each person should humbly seek to avoid.
Hopefully, putting it this way helps you to see the foolishness of such a tendency. Your value is not contingent upon the preference or rejection of another. Sure, it may be personally affirming on a superficial level if someone seeks you out above others. However, if this happens it should not affect your self-image, nor should the opposite experience. Being preferred is fine, but basing your self-worth on it is not.
The humble person, when sought out before others and when preferred to others, will look at this preference as a call to serve and give themselves more fully to those who choose them. They will discover in this act a humble duty to respond to the request of another for the good of the other. It will be seen as a duty of love and service.
From the desire of being consulted, Jesus deliver me:
When another asks for your advice on a difficult topic, this can feel quite affirming. The humble person will encounter such a request as a “holy burden” in the sense that they feel the weight and responsibility to enter into the other person’s life or struggle to help them sort things out. This act must be seen as a holy duty and, therefore, a “burden” only insofar as it is a wonderful responsibility and must be embraced with understanding and care. This duty leads you to focus on the person seeking your counsel, not on the self-affirmation you may be tempted to feel by being consulted.
On the other hand, just as in the above-mentioned situation, if a person were to seek out and desire the act of being consulted for a reason such as feeling important, this would be an act of pride. In that case, the consultation becomes more of a selfish act than an act of love and care for the other.
This is important to understand if you want your goal in life to be the authentic and humble care of others. It’s good to be consulted if you can sincerely use that opportunity to give your mind, heart, compassion and concern to the other. In this case, you must seek to be an instrument of the truth of God as well as the mercy of God. However, the most important guiding principle is that your actions will be centered on the other, not on yourself. The consultation another seeks from you will result in an act of charity on your part and both will benefit from this act.
From the desire of being approved, Jesus deliver me:
The desire of being approved should already be understood clearly for what it is, based on the above reflections. Again, you must be careful not to take your identity in the approval or disapproval of another person. You must daily seek only the approval of God. Therefore, when you fail, you must rejoice in the discovery of your failure so that this discovery will become a means of change in your life. When you succeed in acting in accord with the will of God, you must rejoice in the discovery of your union with God’s will and take satisfaction in this alone.
It is also important to point out the subtle fact that when someone approves of you and your actions, you should not immediately accept what they say or think. This is not intended to sound harsh but, in a sense, it doesn’t matter what another thinks of you, or if they approve of you. All that matters is what is true. However, you can find value in the approval or disapproval of others if you are humble. The humble soul will use the convictions of others as a source of its own examination of conscience. Thus, if you are humble and your sin is pointed out to you, you will rejoice in this discovery and strive to change. On the other hand, if you are praised for something that is not of God, you will proceed with caution and not accept that approval into your heart.
In the end, the experience of being approved or not approved must lead you to turn your eyes to the good of the other and to the truth in the mind of God. When you accept the words of another as being true, you must return gratitude to the person as an act of love. When you experience another’s words as false, you must see this as an opportunity to help guide the person back to the truth. Thus, the humble soul is always looking out for the good of the other. It is in this act of selflessness that the humble soul discovers who it is in the light of truth.
Purification of Unhealthy Fear
The first part of the “Litany of Humility” focuses on the purification of pride that leads to selfish desires. The second part of the Litany turns to the purification of pride that leads to unhealthy fear. It may not be immediately apparent that fear is the result of certain forms of pride, and it may not be immediately apparent that humility casts out unhealthy fear, but that’s exactly what happens. What a wonderful motivation this is to grow in humility—freedom from fear.
Why is humility the remedy for fear? Because fear manifests itself in our lives when we are self-absorbed, tending only to focus in on ourselves. When this happens, we experience certain effects of self-absorption such as becoming disturbed, worried, paranoid, angry, fearful and the like.
Of course there are some forms of healthy fear. For example, if you were to stand on the edge of a cliff and look over, you may be immediately overwhelmed with a form of fear stemming from the natural tendency of self-preservation. In this case, the natural fear that arises within you acts as a safeguard against falling off the cliff. This is a good fear to have.
However, other forms of fear tend to be more selfish and are motivated by a form of pride. Below are some areas of fear that we must seek to eradicate from our lives if we are to grow in humility.
From the fear of being humiliated, Jesus deliver me:
Who would want to be humiliated? Naturally speaking, no one would. But even though there is a natural tendency to have an aversion to being humiliated, we should not fear having it happen to us when we look at humiliation in the light of grace.
If you experience humiliation, this can be a very painful experience. We should all reach out to those who experience humiliation with the utmost compassion, understanding and care. We must help them carry that burden. However, on the deepest spiritual level, experiencing something that is humiliating is actually an opportunity for you to grow in deep humility. Saint Faustina said in her Diary, “Oh my Jesus, nothing is better for the soul than humiliations” (Diary #593). This is a truth that is hard to understand and even harder to live, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s a painful truth that purifies one on the deepest level. How? By stripping away every attachment to that which our fallen human nature holds up as good.
A fine distinction here is necessary. It is not that humiliation is good in and of itself; rather, it is that this suffering and the affliction it causes disposes you either to grow deeper in holiness by seeking only the truth of God, or to grow colder in anger and resentment. When you choose holiness because of a humiliation, letting go of all earthly esteem, then you become purified and grow in a single attachment to God as the one and only source of dignity and value. This is good. However, it is a hard lesson to learn and to live.
If this is hard to comprehend, then spend time carefully and prayerfully reflecting upon the experience of interior fear in your own life and pray that the Lord gives you insight and understanding as to the importance of being free from it, especially the fear of suffering humiliation.
One way to do this is to think about the person who has no fear of being humiliated. This person is in no way under the power and control of the humiliating situation. A small child, for example, is not very capable of humiliation and experiences much freedom as a result. Striving for this form of childlike freedom is essential because its graces enable you to keep your eyes upon the Lord through all things and in all things. It may also be helpful to reflect upon the person who may react in a strong negative way the moment they are humiliated. Reflecting upon the contrast of these two people will help you also to see the freedom that one enjoys over the other. You should seek that freedom as a quality that brings many blessings into your life.
From the fear of being despised, suffering rebukes or being calumniated, ridiculed or wronged, Jesus deliver me:
As in the above reflection, being despised, rebuked, calumniated, ridiculed or wronged in and of themselves are not virtuous. In fact, these experiences are the direct result of someone’s sin. No one has a right to treat you in these ways.
With that said, it’s also important that you not fear if this happens to you. The virtue is found in the way you react to mistreatment. If someone has a grudge, a dislike or even a hatred for you, you must not allow that to affect you. If they publicly rebuke you or even speak false things about you, you must not allow this to affect you negatively or to steal away your peace of heart. The person who lacks a deep humility will allow the hatred of another to bother them. In fact, it takes an exceptionally humble soul to be able to receive the harsh treatment of another and to respond with charity and mercy for the person persecuting them. This is not easily accomplished. Therefore, deep and abiding humility is what is needed. It’s not just a matter of being freed from pride; it’s a matter of growing deeper and deeper in the beautiful and powerful virtue of humility so as to be freed from this very imposing and oppressive fear.
However, most people will not deal with the harshness, rebukes or calumny of another very well. This is very understandable given our human weakness. Therefore, we should be very careful not to rebuke someone for being upset or angry when they are mistreated. It’s essential that we help others and strive ourselves to respond to all harshness with forgiveness and charity. And the first step in doing this is to overcome all fear of these forms of persecution.
Jesus Himself is the perfect witness to this humility as He faced Caiaphas the High Priest and all those who mocked Him and ridiculed Him. He never allowed their mockery and hatred to steal away His peace. He never allowed their falsehoods to dissuade Him from the path of virtue.
The countless Christian martyrs are also wonderful examples of this depth of humility and freedom. They often saw their persecutors as gifts from God sent to help them enter into their final purification before receiving their reward of Heaven. This level of humility is exceptionally admirable and requires that a person surrender to God on the deepest level.
From the fear of being forgotten, Jesus deliver me:
The person who is “forgotten” may struggle with the tendency to say, “Hey, what about me?” Again, this is understandable. However, feeling this way is not the ideal. The ideal is to become completely detached from this form of fear. It is true that God made us to both give and receive love. So receiving the love of another is a wonderful gift. However, when this love is lacking, and one is “forgotten,” the humble person will turn to God as the sole source of comfort and joy.
Let’s also be careful not to look at this only in a negative way, only pointing out that we should be free of the fear of being forgotten. It is also good to highlight the value of being remembered and loved by another and to reflect upon how the humble person will respond to this love.
When a person of humility encounters the authentic love and concern of another, when they are remembered, they will not receive the thoughtfulness of the other as if they need this love to be fulfilled. Rather, they will receive it as a freely given gift of love that turns their eyes toward the goodness of the other person. Their first joy will be to see that goodness and love which is offered to them in a selfless way and to rejoice in it. They will discover the pure love of God in such an act and this love will draw both the receiver and the giver of love much closer to the heart of our Lord. This giving and receiving draws both persons into the inner life of the Trinity and rewards them with an abundance of spiritual fruit. What a blessing this is to both.
Moreover, if that love is ever taken away, the person who is “forgotten” will continue to love because he/she will realize that, on the deepest level, they do not have a right to the love of another. We never have a right to another’s love, not even God’s love. Love, if it is pure and holy, is always a gift freely given and never deserved. Otherwise, it would not be the gift of love at all. This does not mean we will never be remembered by another and loved by them. On the contrary, by being free from the fear of being forgotten by another, we are only then properly disposed to receive their love if they choose to freely offer it.
From the fear of being suspected, Jesus deliver me:
This is a particularly difficult affliction to overcome. When we are wrongly suspected, or even rightly suspected, we tend to respond in a defensive way. We want to lash out and fight back. In fact, it can be very hard to believe that we should not defend ourselves in a forceful and continuous way.
Though legitimate self-defense may be proper and even a duty at times, the key here is to overcome the fear that often accompanies being suspected by another. If someone suspects you of some sin, the most humble response you can make is to listen, examine your conscience and respond with truth. If they are right, then you should change and rejoice in the fact that this person has helped you to identify some fault you need to work on. If, however, after an honest and sincere examination of your conscience you arrive at the conviction that they are wrong, then you should also rejoice in the fact that their false suspicion led you through this self-examination and enabled you to understand yourself and the particular situation with greater clarity. Your response will be the truth, presented with charity and detachment.
You must avoid being put off or disturbed by their suspicion. It matters not what someone thinks about you if what is thought is false. An error of judgment should have no effect on you whatsoever. However, as it is with so many of these humble qualities, this is easier to talk about than it is to live.
The humble person will receive the false suspicion of another peacefully, confident in who they are and with courage. Though this is difficult, they will ultimately discover that this false suspicion gives them an opportunity to detach from erroneous judgments and embrace, more completely, the truth. Freedom is discovered when a person lives more fully in the truth. It also enables them to move forward with confidence and peace of mind to face the many other challenges they will encounter in life. It builds character and, specifically, it builds a humble dependence upon God and His truth alone.
The Full Embrace of Selfless Desires
Overcoming selfish desires and selfish fears is not enough for the perfection of the virtue of humility. Freedom from these desires and fears is only the bottom line. The upper limit of humility is to grow in the opposite desires and convictions that instead will lead to complete selflessness, enabling you to turn your eyes to the good of others. Therefore, when you overcome selfishness, and grow holy desires in its place, these holy desires transform your character to the greatest degree. The perfection of love is ultimately obtained when all you desire is to love another. And, prior to that, the perfection of humility comes only when all that you desire is humility. Humility is no longer experienced as a struggle to overcome pride; rather, it eventually becomes a great joy and forms the basis of your deepest satisfaction.
Let’s look at the qualities of the humble soul who has not only overcome pride but has also wholeheartedly embraced humility with every fiber of its being and with all its desire.
That others may be loved and esteemed more than I, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it:
Why is it healthy to have such a desire? Why would we want to desire that others be loved and esteemed more than us? The reason has nothing to do with us not wanting to be loved ourselves. It has to do with the fact that the humble soul has so completely turned its eyes to the good of others that it longs for blessings to be bestowed upon others far more than it desires blessings for itself. This is a completely selfless desire and draws one into the perfection of humility. It may be true that when someone has reached this level of humility, others will love them and esteem them greatly. And that’s good. It’s good if people do love and esteem you on account of your holiness. The key is to not only be freed from the selfish desire for that love, but to also have the good of others as your singular focus. It must be your singular desire that countless blessings of love and esteem be bestowed upon others. This outward focus is quite transforming of your character.
It should also be noted that in this humble and selfless act, you will be consoled by the fact that God desires the same thing for you! He desires countless blessings to be bestowed upon you and He will not let you down. You do not have to waste your time and energy desiring this for yourself. God will take care of you when you achieve this level of humility.
In order to grow in this desire, examine your conscience and try to discover within yourself a desire for blessings to be bestowed upon others. Be practical and think about the people who are a central part of your life, including those who have hurt you. Let yourself be drawn into a desire for their good and allow yourself to desire this more than you desire it even for yourself. Do not hesitate to let your desires become ordered in this selfless way. In the end, this desire is far better for your own soul than if you spent all your time and energy trying to obtain blessings for yourself.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it:
The first thing to note about this desire is that, in reality, the “opinion of the world” does not matter. It does not matter what the world thinks of you or what you think of others. Nevertheless, fostering a desire within your heart that others will increase and you decrease is good because it not only completely frees you from the desire for worldly esteem, it also helps you to have hope that the world will treat others with the love and respect they deserve. This is, therefore, a desire not only for blessings upon individuals, but it’s also a desire that the world itself becomes a place of goodness and be filled with respect for the dignity of all people.
Again, you need not worry about what the world thinks of you. It matters not. However, just as in the above paragraphs about esteem and love, it often happens that when you have a hopeful desire that worldly respect for others will increase, the world will treat you with respect, also. However, this is not always the case and sometimes the world will hate you even more. Jesus even said this hatred would appear if we follow Him (see Matthew 10:22). However, as in all things, this matters not. The simple goal is to have hope that others will continually be respected and loved by all people and to desire this more than you desire it for yourself.
Saint John the Baptist is a good person to consider as a model for this holy desire. Remember that John had become quite popular and many wanted to make him king. However, once Jesus came to him to be baptized, John said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Earlier, John had said of Jesus, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27). John desired that Jesus be known, loved and respected by all people. He desired this for Jesus more than he desired it for himself. Interestingly, John’s humility actually fostered much admiration and love for him in the hearts of others.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, praised and I unnoticed, preferred to me in everything, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it:
These holy desires continue to reveal the importance of keeping our focus upon the good of others and not to spend time and energy on our own good. If we can actually desire that we be “set aside,” and that others are “chosen” before us, or that they be “praised” and we “unnoticed,” or that they be “preferred” to us in everything, we will be living in a radically selfless way.
It’s true that these desires will be difficult to attain and you may even find yourself coming up with excuses as to why this is foolish thinking. You may find yourself thinking, “Why would I want to desire that I be set aside or go unnoticed? This seems contrary to my own good. I want to be preferred to others!” But this is foolish thinking. Desiring that others be chosen before us, preferred to us, and praised more than us must be our goal. Living these desires makes us more human and enables us to become who God created us to be. At the heart of being human is the desire to give of ourselves completely, selflessly seeking the good of others in all things. This is love in its purest form. Moreover, in living this desire, we actually do more for ourselves than we could ever imagine.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it:
This final humble desire has an important qualifier: “…provided that I may become as holy as I should.” This is interesting because we “should” become perfect. Therefore, in reality, this is simply a way of saying, “Lord, help me to become perfect but make it my deepest desire that others also achieve this perfection.” Of course, desiring this will actually make you exceptionally holy without you even realizing it or having to strive for that goal of holiness. But that’s the key. Holiness is not about you gazing at yourself, admiring your own holiness. Holiness is about turning your complete attention to the good of others. In this act, if you can achieve it, you will become perfected without even realizing it or desiring it.
By way of summary, the humble soul first seeks to eradicate all selfishness from its own life. From there, it makes a conscious choice to put others first. However, this is not enough. True humility allows the choice to put others first to eventually take over every desire and passion of one’s soul. It is ultimately in the transformation of one’s desires that the true perfection of humility is obtained. This is only possible by a grace from God, purifying the soul in the deepest way.
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