Learn from Me
Of all the messages given during our FOSJ sessions, this, perhaps, may be among the most important. The subject of this session is humility. Before beginning, it may be appropriate to share a quote from the Second Vatican Council: “Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). Today, many men preach and influence others to teach the Word by neglecting the Word; they counsel men to become Christians without referencing Christ. “Let’s not needlessly offend anybody,” they say. They are, in fact, afraid of Christ, fearful of mentioning his name, ashamed of the name and person of Jesus. Why? Because the name of Jesus and his Person makes people uncomfortable. Why? Because Jesus claimed what no other man can claim—that he alone is the way to the Father, that he is God, and that, by becoming the Son of Man, he alone is capable of leading men to become sons of God. He alone can reveal to us who we are and what our supreme calling is. We need Jesus. To be a son of God, I need God’s Son; to be a godly man, I need the God-man; to become like God, I need the God who became like me—a man. Let’s cast off the political correctness and spiritual bureaucracy that attempts to restrain the Holy Spirit and learn from Jesus what it means to be a great man. Our Lord commands us, “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). Jesus states unequivocally that he desires us to learn from him, to become like him, and the key to becoming like Jesus is being humble of heart.
It’s Not All About You
But what is humility and why is it so great? It is challenging for me to talk about humility considering that I struggle with this virtue. Sometimes I begin to believe that I may be humble—in fact, so humble that I am proud of it. Yes, it is hard to be humble. Humility may be the most misunderstood virtue. Many associate humility with shame, shyness, weakness, being a “nice, quiet, guy”; perhaps allowing others to take advantage of you; not being an initiator or leader; but rather, being a doormat. The word humility comes from the Latin word humulis, which means “grounded.” In fact, the word humulis is derived from the word humus, which means “from the earth.” In other words, humility is acknowledging and living from the reality that we are from below and God is from above; we are from the earth, God is from heaven. Humility is remembering the dirt from which we were created. Humility is having a clear understanding of our position in relationship to God. When a person understands how great God is and how insignificant he is in comparison to God, he begins to be humble, and therefore is on the path to greatness. Humility is realizing that there is a bigger context than our personal life. There is a cosmic plan, a universe, a world far bigger than our own microcosm. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about us. Decades ago, shortly after my conversion, I was conversing with a coworker. At that time, I had a terrible habit of bringing the conversation around to center on me (things haven’t changed much—enough about me, let’s talk about me). At one point, he stopped the conversation and said, “You know, Devin, it isn’t always about you.” From that moment on, I began to desire to move outside my microcosm into God’s macro plan.
The Benefits of Humility
As an acquaintance said to me recently in jest, “Stop being so humble, you’re not that great anyway.” The point is that humility is profoundly connected with true greatness. If the spiritual life is compared to a house, humility is the foundation. If there is no foundation—or at best a poor foundation—a house cannot stand. Humility is not the house, but without it, the house of the Holy Spirit cannot stand. Humility is the foundation of a life of greatness. Consider the following benefits of humility: First, humility enables a man to possess all the virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Acquired humility is in a certain sense the greatest good,” and as Fr. Cajeten Bergamo said, “Therefore whoever possesses this virtue may be said to posses all virtues and he who lacks it lacks all.” “Pride is the beginning of all sin” (Eccles. 10:15); therefore humility is the beginning of all the virtues. Second, humility is a great act of worship. Humility confesses the greatness of God, “for great is the power of God alone, and He is honored by the humble” (Eccles. 3:21). Third, humility leads to glory. “Whoever honors me I will glorify him” (1 Kings 2:30), and, as St. Peter said, “Humble yourself before the mighty hand of God and in due time He will exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6). Fourth, humility affords true wisdom. “Where humility is, there is true wisdom” (Prov. 11:2). Fifth, humility affords salvation. St. Augustine wrote, “No one receives the kingdom of heaven except by humility,” and our Lord said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matt. 5:3). Sixth, humility protects one from sinning. “No one can fall when lying on the ground and no man can sin as long as he is humble,” in the words of Fr. Cajetan Bergamo. Seventh, humility enables one to love like God loves. As St. Bernard said, “The soul will obtain charity in proportion to its humility.” The eighth benefit of humility is that God never rejects a humble heart. As King David prayed after repenting from having adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah, “A humble contrite heart you will not despise” (Ps. 51). Considering these benefits, we can see that humility is great.
First Step Toward Humility: Realize That You Are Not God
As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Humility is not to esteem oneself to be above that which one really is.” Humility is not comparing oneself to another and coming up short. Humility is comparing oneself to the person God has created us to be—the fullness of the image of Christ. Humility, then, is derived from comparing oneself to Christ without despairing. When all of Israel came out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist speak, they were “wondering in their hearts about John, whether perhaps he might be the Christ” (Luke 3:15), “and he acknowledged and did not deny; and he acknowledged, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). John’s example is significant. John understood his position in relation to God: I am not the Christ, I am not the Messiah, I am not the Savior, I am not God. Though we would never articulate the thought aloud, and perhaps never admit the idea in our minds, many of us believe, at some level, that we are the god of our lives, of our world, or our domain. A good way to test and determine whether this is true is to meditate upon how we react when things do not go our way. When we’re running late for Mass, when a repair project breeds even more repair problems; when we expect a certain outcome and it does not play out in the way we had hoped—when things like this happen, how do we react? Do we become resentful, impatient, angry, blaming, discouraged? All these reactions and behaviors indicate, at a fundamental level, that we think we are the god of our lives. We want to be in control, and when we realize we are not we become frustrated, upset, and angry. We realize that we are not the Christ.
Last week, a friend related that one of his business deals fell through. We laughed about how God’s plans are great when his plan is blessing our plans, but it is a tragedy when he gets in there and messes up those plans. I asked him how he handled it so calmly and he told me that for decades he struggled with an alcohol addiction that should have been a perpetual reminder that he was not god, that he didn’t have power and control over his life. It was only after he was diagnosed with malignant skin cancer that he overcame his addiction to alcohol. Why? Because while facing the probability of death straight in the eyes, and preparing to provide for a heartbroken wife and devastated children if he should die, he realized that he had very little control over his life or his destiny. Consequently, he surrendered his life to God, who granted him the power to defeat not only the alcoholism but also the cancer. The first step to greatness it to realize that you are not great. The first step to becoming like God is to understand that you are completely dependent upon God. The first step to becoming humble is to know that, “I am not the Christ.”
Second Step Toward Humility: Realize That You Are Not Worthy
John the Baptist also said, that there is one “who is to come after me, who has been set above me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loose.” John’s reference to his unworthiness to loosen the strap of Jesus’ sandal is an analogy that evokes the image of a slave. During the time of Christ, people in the Middle East walked daily upon dirt, filth, and dung, as paved roads were few and far between. When a man arrived home, his servant would take off his master’s sandals and then wash his badly soiled feet. John, though the greatest of the prophets, stated truthfully that he was not worthy to be Jesus’ slave. He considered that even the dung on God’s feet was more glorious than his own crown of glory. Many of us want to serve Christ as long as we can sit at his right and his left in glory. In other words, we want to serve Christ if in doing so it will serve us. Mother Teresa, while with a prominent priest, would scuttle off periodically without explanation. When he finally asked where she was going, she responded that she went to clean the toilets to help her become humble in the face of so many compliments. When like Mother Teresa or John the Baptist, we believe that we are not worthy of prominent positions or great honor, we will become compelled to serve our family with passion. In so doing, we will become truly humble, which will eventually lead to true greatness. This is a huge challenge. I have to admit that sometimes when I return home from work I hope that I won’t have to be the one to wake my special needs, fourteen year-old from her nap, change her diaper, wash her, brush her hair, and dress her for dinner. At every moment, we are faced with the challenge to embrace things to which we have an aversion. We must ask ourselves, “Do I really believe that I am above this?” When Anna Marie has an ungodly diaper that it is my responsibility to change, I will often say, “I don’t deserve this. . . . I deserve far worse!” This helps me remember how good I really have it. Humility is not thinking less about self as much as it is thinking about self less. The second step to becoming humble is to realize that you are not worthy to be Christ’s slave, and yet he has called you to be a son.
Third Step Toward Humility: Embrace Small Responsibilities
When we truly embrace our position of humility, and serve our family without looking for affirmation, without longing for accolades, it is then that the Lord will entrust us with greater responsibilities. “To those who are faithful in small matters, they will be granted greater responsibilities” (Matt. 25:21). John the Baptist was faithful in small matters—in recognizing his position in relation to God—and consequently Jesus approached John to be baptized. “John hindering him said, ‘It is I who ought to be baptized by you, and do you come to me to baptized?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Let it be so now, for so it becomes us to fulfill all justice’” (Matt. 3:15). It is when we truly believe ourselves unworthy to serve God that God will call us to serve in a greater capacity. It is precisely when we believe that God does not need us that God will use us. “Indeed to become great, one must paradoxically become little, or rather reconcile himself with his littleness” (Joseph’s Way, p. 270).
Fourth Step Toward Humility: Decreasing So That They May Increase
John the Baptist, after Jesus was baptized, proclaimed, “He must increase and I must decrease.” All too often men misuse and abuse their position of authority and leadership. Too often, after witnessing God’s glory being transmitted through us, we begin to believe that we are the source and reason of such glory. How often have we witnessed the scandal of leaders becoming drunk on their own glory only to stumble blindly into humiliating scandals? St. Thomas Aquinas warns us that if we become prideful, God will hand us over to other sins with the purpose of humbling us, “for whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled” (Matt. 23:12). So how do we decrease that Christ may increase? We fathers must be aware that we are called to transfer glory rather than trying to retain it for ourselves. Several years ago, Coach Ted, a father who had retired from a tremendous career as a college basketball coach, confessed to me that he struggled to find value now that he was no longer coaching. Then with a smile Coach related that what gave him satisfaction and joy was “coaching” his son, who was himself coaching a major university college basketball program. Coach decreased so that his son may increase. This is the essence of fatherhood: decreasing to ensure that our children may increase. Coach released his desire for glory to help his son achieve his glory. After years of leading the Holy Family and investing himself in Jesus, Joseph came to the realization that Jesus must fulfill his mission on his own. “Joseph faithfully fulfilled the task of preparing Jesus for his self-oblation” (Joseph’s Way, p. 211), and it was this preparation that lived on vicariously in Jesus. Joseph decreased in order that Jesus could increase.
Littleness—The Means to Greatness
A certain way to fail as a father is to believe that it is all about you. It cannot be so with us. You and I are not the Christ, we are not God. We are not worthy to be on his team and be his servant, let alone his key player. Yet, if we realize and embrace these truths, embrace those seemingly insignificant, unattractive fatherly duties, Christ will begin to reveal our supreme calling. “Reconcile yourself to your littleness and you will begin to reconcile yourself with your greatness. . . . Littleness, as a means to greatness, is indeed a great gain, whereas self-exaltedness that ends in smallness is a tragic loss” (Joseph’s Way, p. 271).