Contemporary Western culture seems to promote nothing but pride these days; it insists that only those who are proud, selfish, and disobedient can effect change or succeed in life. But salvation history and the lives of the saints tell us a different story—namely, that pride is the downfall of mankind, and that humility is what ultimately exalts us.
Humility is a difficult virtue to embrace because it is such a quiet one and is often mistaken for what it is not. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas describes humility thus: “Truly, the virtue of humility consists in this, that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him, but he subjects himself to his superior.” Being humble does not mean debasing yourself and refusing to acknowledge that you have any gifts or talents whatsoever—and some would argue that in fact, such an attitude is actually hidden pride! The truly humble man understands that he is not the greatest at anything, and that while he is better at something than others might be, his gift ultimately comes from God and is to be used for the glory of God, not for personal accolades. The prime example of this is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was a young woman without wealth or powerful connections, and yet her submission to the will of God altered the course of human history and opened the door for the divine Messiah to enter the world He would one day redeem. She did not attempt to argue that she was utterly unworthy of the grace bestowed on her, but rather submitted with her humble fiat, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
The truly humble man knows his own limitations—he submits to the authority not only of God and of the Church, but also to the legitimate authority of the government and the workplace. A humble man does not go looking for opportunities to gain power and prestige. He dies to himself for the sake of others—he harbors no resentment when others’ work is extolled while his goes unnoticed, and he uses those moments of humiliation to draw closer to Christ. The humble man continues to use his gifts even if no one but God is going to see or acknowledge them. And when his gifts and accomplishments are acknowledged by the world, the humble man turns that praise back to God instead of focusing it on himself. The humble man does not need to project an Instagram-perfect image of his life to the rest of the world: he accepts that he is a work in progress, can admit when he is wrong, and can accept criticism with grace.
Sometimes true humility seems impossible to achieve. Because we are fallen creatures wrapped up in ourselves, we have to constantly work toward selflessness. One method of doing this is by praying The Litany of Humility. This prayer asks Jesus to deliver us from desires and fears fueled by pride—from the desire of praise, to the fear of being wronged. But the beauty of this litany is that it not only asks that we be freed from our pride, but it also asks for the grace to desire that others may be better than we are, loved more than we are, holier than we are. True humility is not downplaying our own roles, but is setting aside our own desires so that others can rise higher and do more for Christ than we ever could. It’s being the Andrew to someone else’s Peter and the Barnabas to someone else’s Paul—calling forth someone to the good or encouraging their potential, even if means that person becomes greater than ourselves.
Matt Maher has his own take on the Litany of Humility in his song “Every Little Prison.” What I like about Maher’s version is that he adapts the prayer to be more recognizable for the modern Christian. Pride takes many forms in this era of Instagram followers, Facebook “likes,” and the 24-hour news cycle—we spend time “wondering if I am relevant and liked” and “wanting to be seen.” Ultimately, humility requires us to turn to God instead of other things and to trust in him, in his mercy and his wisdom, rather than becoming slaves to our fears of being judged, or of not being loved, or of having to let go. By praying for freedom from the prisons created by pride, may we live more confidently in the love of God and in doing his will.
In my blog post on God as Infinite Love posted last Thursday, I reflected on praying as an active participation with God as the infinitely loving Father. What it did not address, however, were the practical realities concerning one’s life of prayer. To put it another way, it didn’t mention that such a task was hard to live out! With all the distractions and chaos of everyday life, it is too easy to fall into the trap of forgetting one’s dependence on God for all things. This trap, due to the human condition of sin, is in a way inevitable. So how does one persevere in praying when such distractions and forgetfulness occur?
The easy answer would be “don’t get distracted and don’t forget you depend on God for all things!” But let’s be honest with ourselves. Is that really practical? In a world of social media, can we, as humans, keep our focus on God at all times? I think most people, if sincerely evaluating their own lives, would say no. What do we do, then, to refocus on God and return to encountering His ceaseless love?
I think there is a two-fold answer to this question that has been answered by Pope Francis and Blessed John Paul II. The only way we are even capable of persevering, that is, getting ourselves back on route, is to realize and always remember God as Infinite Mercy. In addition, we must also humbly accept his never-ending forgiveness, for doing such is an act of recognizing that we need Him (and not the other way around!).
Blessed John Paul II dedicates an entire encyclical for reflecting on God’s Mercy. In Dives in Misericordia, he uses the parable of the prodigal son as an analogy (which was the Gospel reading two Sundays ago, if you recall). The son, who received a portion of his father’s inheritance, decided to spend it on a “loose lifestyle.” However, he soon realized what he had done, and how it had left him hungry. He reached such a point of guilt and hunger that he made the decision to go back to his father and say ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of you hired servants.”
But when the son heads back to his father’s house, before he can even finish his prepared statement, the father orders his servants to put the best robe on him and prepare a feast of celebration. This scripture passage shows that God’s mercy is an act of faithful love. God is faithful to his fatherhood and faithful to the Infinite Love He offers us in prayer. This is His Mercy, and it is a reminder to us all that God’s Love will never fail us.
Think how generous this is! Looking back at the parable, the generosity of the father (when the son returns home) is so great, it angers the oldest son. The father responds, saying, “but now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.” The father’s fidelity to his lost son is totally and completely concentrated on the dignity of the son. This is the same way with God, our Father. The parable reveals that God’s Mercy is, in itself, an act of renewing His gift to us, our humanity.
What does this have to do with our sought-out questions? This understanding of God’s Mercy, that is, as the prodigal son’s father, explains to us why we need God’s Love and Mercy. God’s Love and Mercy give us our human dignity. When we lose sight of God in our life, we lose sight of our human dignity. We lose it to such an extent that, deep down, we realize we are missing something. We realize we need God’s Mercy and Love to renew our human worth.
It makes perseverance in a life of prayer that much easier, because we don’t have to worry about God abandoning us! However, it also makes it that much harder, because acknowledging our need of God requires a deep sense of humility. In his first Angelus, Pope Francis reminds the crowd that God never gets tired of forgiving, but we get tired of asking for His forgiveness. We must strive to come to God with an open and humble heart, as God will be eagerly waiting to offer His Forgiveness.
Pope Francis does not just remind us to never tire of asking for God’s forgiveness, but he is a living testimony to that message. Just look at his interview with America Magazine. Before he talks about the Church needing to be a hospital of mercy, he first answers the question concerning who Pope Francis is. His answer: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Before encouraging others to be merciful, he recognizes that he himself is in need of God’s mercy. He humbly accepts God’s Mercy
Like the prodigal son, we wander off in our lives until a certain point hits us where we realize we are missing something. What do we need to do to ensure that we are able to get back to prayer, that encounter with God’s love? We first need to obtain the virtue of humility, like Pope Francis, to realize that we are lost and in need of God to renew us. To persevere in praying, all we need to do is say the words Pope Francis said in the interview: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Out of that humility, we can accept God’s Infinite Mercy, because we know, that like the prodigal son’s father, He will always be faithful.
For some simple reflection, listen to this song by Matt Maher. It has helped me many times:
Andrew St. Hilaire is the Assistant to the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center