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.