Bishop Hying

Humility is the foundational virtue that builds up the spiritual life within us

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on September 10, 2017


      During the preparation of the gifts at Mass, the priest washes his hands and asks the Lord to forgive his sins. Liturgical historians point out that this ablution was added to the Eucharist back when people would offer animals and produce as the collection offering rather than money.  As with many liturgical actions, this hand washing had a practical explanation - the priest’s hands were dirty after receiving these gifts - and later gained a spiritual meaning - asking for pardon and mercy.

      During the old rite of the coronation of a new pope, the Holy Father would be carried through St. Peter’s Basilica amid incense, applause, pomp and splendor, and then suddenly the procession would halt without warning. A cowled monk would step forward, light a taper which quickly burned out and proclaim, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which is Latin for “Thus passes the glory of the world.” 

      This ritual reminded the new pope to not let all of this fanfare go to his head, but rather, to ponder the brevity of life, the need for humility and trust in the grace of the Lord.

      I have written on humility before in this column, but I return to it again because this virtue is so essential to the spiritual life. The opposite of pride, humility is the profound recognition of our radical need for God and our absolute poverty.  Humility destroys arrogance because it recognizes that all of our gifts and talents come from the hands of the Lord. It knocks out complacency and self-sufficiency because we come to know that, without God’s help and mercy, we are lost and hopeless. 

      Humility inspires gratitude and generosity because it freely passes on what it feels to unworthily retain for self.  Pride aggressively seeks the highest place because it feels endlessly entitled; humility joyfully takes the lowest seat because it recognizes the enormity of what has already been given.

      God assuming flesh, Jesus eating with sinners, Christ washing feet, the Eucharist making the Lord vulnerable for us, the Son of God laying his life down on the cross as a common criminal, God inviting us to follow him but never forcing his way, all remind us that God is more humble than we are. If the Lord could do all that he did for us without counting the cost or standing on his own infinite dignity, how much more humble, simple and docile we should become as servants of the living God and the Kingdom of heaven! 

      Humility is the foundational virtue that builds up the spiritual life within us. Without it, no real progress in the Holy Spirit is even possible.

      Giving preference in traffic or a checkout line, overlooking others’ faults, admitting our ignorance and sin, asking for forgiveness, accepting fraternal correction and just consequences, performing a lowly task for another person, not seeking to be the center of attention nor needing to dominate every conversation, listening more than speaking - all of these little actions express the humility of Christ and allow us to become ever more like the Master. 

      The word “humility” comes from the Latin “humus” which means “earth.”  To renounce our pride is to stay grounded, centered, lowly, so that when we do fail, we don’t have far to fall. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “Sometimes the Lord waters our souls with the seeming bitterness of humiliations in order to strengthen our virtue and trust.”

      I thought of this saintly line when I threw out a bad first pitch (after a pretty good practice session) at the Rail Cats game last month!  Because of Christ’s unconditional love for us and the victory of the cross and resurrection which penetrates every fiber of our being as Christians, we need not fear mistakes, failures, ignorance, inadequacy or even sin, as long as we do our best and put our trust in the Lord. 

      St. Paul went so far as to say that he boasted of his weaknesses because then the strength of the Lord would be manifest within him. How liberating to not always need to be right, in control, strong and perfect. Our faith in Jesus allows us to simply be ourselves, drop our facades, cease pretending to be something we are not, not be so concerned with what other people think of us and accept our weaknesses and limitations. 

      Even though it takes a lifetime to work into a fuller humility, wisdom does come with age and experience. As we go through life, hopefully we can laugh at ourselves more, accept the imperfection of everybody and everything around us with better grace and be more docile to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

      In times past, popes needed a reality check from a little monk; at every Mass, the priest washes his hands, acknowledging his unworthiness and need for mercy; we can ponder a crucifix and taste the astounding humility of Christ; and we can accept the setbacks, criticisms, failures and weaknesses of our human condition with lowliness and grace, all because God loves us. 

      When the perfect, infinite and unconditional love of God poured out in Christ truly becomes the basis of our self-esteem, self-confidence and a healthy self-love, then nothing can really shake us up too much.  If we are so grounded in the Lord, so in love with Jesus and so purified of false pride, that we can almost disappear into Christ, then we become like the drop of water put into the wine at the preparation of the Eucharistic gifts at Mass – fully immersed in Christ. 


       +Donald J. Hying

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