Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator, was an outstanding example of humility. Here’s just one instance:
Shortly after he became the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he happened to be walking in an exclusive section of town. A wealthy white woman stopped him and ,not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later told the lady who the wood-chopper was.
The next morning, the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington at his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. "It’s perfectly all right, Madam," he replied. "Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend." She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.
Humility is the most basic of all of the Christian virtues. Belief in God requires humility. It allows us to believe in someone greater than ourselves, to admit that we’re not the center of the known universe.
We can’t truly love without humility because it allows us to forget ourselves, put aside our self-centered desires and love others.
What exactly is humility? Of all of the definitions I’ve come across, I think Saint Teresa of Avila gave us the most helpful one. She said that humility is living in the truth (“andar en la verdad”).
Humility allows us to live in the truth in our relationship with God, ourselves and our neighbor.
First, we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We live out our relationship with God by being obedient to his loving and provident plan for our lives.
Second, we live in the truth with ourselves by becoming our best self–developing our skills and virtues and talents, not by trying to be a copy of someone else.
Third, we live in truth with our neighbor through mutual respect, kindness and acceptance.
In this Sunday’s gospel narrative, Jesus speaks to us about the virtue of humility:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones” (Matthew 11: 25).
Humble people are delightful to work with and easy to live with. They make great friends and are always fun to be with.
But humility is not a virtue that comes easily. Benjamin Franklin once wrote:
Winston Churchill was once asked, "Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?"
"It’s quite flattering," replied Sir Winston. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if, instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
Humility is a gift. We need to ask God to make us humble. But asking for this virtue is not enough; we need to practice humility. Every day presents many opportunities to practice humility. And the more we exercise humility, the humbler we will become.
Abraham Lincoln once got caught up in a situation where he wanted to satisfy a politician, so he issued a command to transfer certain regiments during the Civil War. When the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, received the order, he refused to carry it out. He said that the President was a fool. Lincoln was told what Stanton had said, and he replied, "If Stanton said I’m a fool, then I must be, for he is nearly always right. I’ll see for myself." As the two men talked, the President quickly realized that his decision was a serious mistake, and without hesitation he withdrew it.
The opposite of the virtue of humility is pride. Pride is an ugly sin. It causes division, sadness, loneliness and hurt.
Have you ever noticed how humble people are filled with joy and peace? They know how to build community and be team players. They are wonderful to be with because they are forgetful of themselves. They are kind and compassionate to everyone around them.
But the proud cultivate an inflated notion of their own importance. They yearn to be thought superior to others, to dominate them, to impose their own ideas upon them. Proud people constantly strive to be singled out, seeking honors and privileges that will set them apart from more commonplace people. The proud desire the esteem of other people. They boast of their own qualities and achievements. Ostentatious and pompous in their relationships with others, they are prone to hypocrisy, assuming the appearance of virtue in order to cover their vices. They are easy to identify in restaurants because they show little respect to waiters and waitresses–no conversation, no eye contact, as if these individuals had no purpose in life but to serve them.
The only remedy for pride is the virtue of humility. One horrific example of pride’s power to destroy occurred in the summer of 1986, when two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters. The investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn’t a problem with technology, such as a radar malfunction, or even the thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship’s presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.
Humility never kills; it disarms. For example, George Washington Carver, the scientist who developed hundreds of useful products from peanuts, once told this story about himself. "When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is reserved for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well, George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me."
As a practical application of this Sunday’s teaching on the virtue of humility, Pope Francis has mentioned that there are two ways to be humble: How we pray and how we go to Confession are the two fundamental ways we live out the virtue of humility. And he is correct in pointing out the connection between prayer and the Sacrament of Confession. Both moments–at prayer and in the confessional–are our best and most important personal expressions of humility. In both instances we recognize our need for God.
The arrogant do not pray and the arrogant do not go to Confession.
Only the humble can experience the peace and the joy that Jesus offers us in his gentle invitation: Only the humble can get to heaven.
This weekend we celebrate Independence Day. As we celebrate our independence and cherish our freedoms, we must remember that both our independence and our freedom are rooted in our dependence upon God. Freedom without God, without the ability to govern ourselves, leads to unjust acts, to chaos, repression and, finally, tyranny.
James Madison wrote:
Fr. James Farfaglia
is the Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, TX. You can visit him on the web at www.fatherjames.org.