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What is the most dreaded virtue?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 07/07/17

Correcting our misunderstanding of humility, a virtue that leaves us nowhere to hide.

Which Scripture verse is most unsettling? Mightn’t a good candidate be Matthew 23:12? “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” We might find those words alarming, first of all, because they are true, and, more likely, because of a misunderstanding of humility and an understandable fear of humiliation.

Humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning “earth.” We get a sense of it in the formula for distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” In other words, humility is rooted in telling the truth—the truth about ourselves and the truth about God.

The truth about us is that we are fallen and mortal, made from the dust of the earth. We humans, created in the image and likeness of God, are sinners who have squandered and forsaken our high calling to be the crown of creation, made for the eternal happiness of Heaven. That painful truth leads us to the glorious truth about God—God chose to save us from our sin at a terrible cost to himself. And that glorious truth leads us to a most amazing truth—we are loved sinners, adopted children and heirs to the kingdom of Heaven. Humility requires that we tell the truth about ourselves and the truth about God in the same breath.

Worldliness would have us believe the lie that we’re not sinners and that we’re not loved. It asks us to settle for what the world can give. C.S. Lewis argues against this false humility: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Christian humility requires a grateful boldness, insisting on the whole truth about God and loved sinners.

We may rightly fear humiliation—having our deepest wounds and greatest shames exposed to an uncaring or mocking public. Our right desire for privacy can be subverted by either fear or pride—which in turn can keep us from a proper humility necessary for repentance and for healing. Humiliation can keep us hiding in the dark, or prompt us to build up false selves—idols that we turn to for security. But there is another way.

Recently, I had the good fortune of reading the new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, brought to my attention by a bookseller with a manifest love for language and story. A passage from the novel prompted this column. The main character has suffered a fall from grace, and has come to love a woman who has also endured humiliation. The two are able to recognize one another as members of the Confederacy of the Humbled:

“…the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”

Humiliation is dreaded because it leaves us with nowhere to hide. Humility, rightly understood, is to be desired because it leaves us with no need to hide. If we join the “Confederacy of the Humbled,” we are mercifully (and, yes, painfully) freed from our illusions about ourselves and others. We no longer need to pretend that we are what we are not, and we are no longer taken in or attracted by the pretenses of others. Those so humbled are well acquainted with what is easily (and inevitably) lost, and have come to value most what cannot be taken away.

Humility is a feared virtue only when it is misunderstood. Christians who know that they are already perfectly loved and have a lasting home in their Father’s heart do not need to be important, celebrated, or even noticed. And those who have been humbled will have forbearance and compassion for those who have not yet learned the painful lessons to be found in the purgatory of humility.

When I write next, I will speak of the impending epidemic of euthanasia as a right and a duty in the West, especially in the United States. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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