Humility is one of the most important virtues to acquire, for without it, true holiness cannot exist. In fact, St. Augustine says: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” So without further ado, here are six steps to growing in humility.
- Rely on God. Apart from God one can do nothing, but as St. Paul said: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Make a habit of having recourse to God in prayer. Whenever you find yourself tempted, ask God for the grace to do His will. This habit can be difficult to acquire at first, because it is sooo easy to forget and fly straight into sin without first asking for God’s help. But what you can do is start by praying for the grace to remember to have recourse to God in trials and temptations…trust me – it works! It might also help to repeat some invocation throughout the day at specific times. For this particular virtue of humility, try saying: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like Yours.” Above all, make sure to pray daily for the virtues you want to grow in, for Christ has said “Whatever you in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13) and “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
- Don’t make excuses. One of the first steps to humility is to accept your behaviour without trying to justify it – as St. John Bosco said “Do not try to excuse your faults, try to correct them.” In fact, St. Phillip Neri said “He who really wants to become holy ought never to excuse himself, not even when the accusation made against him is false.” (The exception being, of course, when scandal could result otherwise). If you have done wrong, been blamed, or have simply forgotten to do something or made a silly mistake, do not excuse yourself, but simply apologize. Excuses often weave their way somewhat subtly into apologies, becoming a chance for us to blame others for our behaviour – “I’m sorry, but you really shouldn’t have done such-and-such, because…” So make a habit of saying simply “I’m sorry. I did the wrong thing” whenever you make an apology; you will feel that it is a lot more sincere and meaningful that way.
- Accept correction and take advice. It can be very difficult to remain humble when corrected…and it is often an occasion in which one resorts to excuses. Try to accept correction with a smile, or a simple and sincere “Thankyou”. Also, taking advice (in all things not sinful), valuing it over your own knowledge/preferences/customs, is a great step toward humility. This is, in fact, one of the things I found most striking in the story of St. Josephine Bakhita. One of her first jobs as a Canossian Sister was as a cook in the kitchen, and the younger sisters were sent to learn from her. They would sometimes suggest to her how to do things better, and Sr. Bakhita would graciously accept their advice and put it into practice, even though she new that the inexperienced advice would not work as well.
- Compare yourself to God, not others. Comparing oneself to others leads either to envy and discontent with one’s own gifts and talents, or a self-righteous attitude like the Pharisee in the Parable (Luke 18:9-14), who thanked God because he was not like the tax collector. Judging other people and counting their sins will not lead to holiness, so do not compare yourself to others – rather, compare yourself to God, and you will come to see how imperfect you are, how much you stand in need of His mercy, and how much you have been forgiven already. Keeping in mind all the mercies God has granted you is an amazing help to overcoming a judgemental attitude, especially when you consider that God so often preserves us from many of the temptations to which others are subjected, because he knows our weakness, and that, had we been in their situation, we would have very likely fallen into greater sin.
- Don’t criticize others. A good rule of thumb is to not complain about others or discuss their faults. Rather, pray for them to God in intercessory pray, and even try offering sacrifices to God on their behalf. Forgive others, always remembering how much God has forgiven you – do not make the mistake of the unmerciful servant, who refused to forgive a fellow servant his debt, though his master had just forgiven him his own debt (Matthew 18:21-35). Try as best as you can to keep their offences from ever crossing your mind. If you find yourself thinking of the fault of another, call to mind their virtues and good intentions, and all the good acts they may have done without your knowledge, just as many of your good acts are unknown to others.
- Rejoice at insults. This one can be very difficult, but it is important, for true humility wishes to be despised and held in contempt by others, especially since Our Lord suffered contempt for us on earth. All too often it is easy to be “one who says that he is the greatest sinner in the world, and then becomes indignant, because somebody, more or less, takes him at his word and treats him with contempt.” (St. Alphonsus Liguori) The best starting point is to remain silent when insulted, and to try and maintain one’s peace, remembering the mockery and contempt Our Lord did suffer for us.
Bonus. The Imitation of Christ gives some good examples of occasions in which it is especially necessary to practice humility, and that is when:
“What others have to say is listened to; when you speak, you are despised. Others ask and they receive; you ask and you are refused. The praise of others is on everybody’s lips; nobody says a word about you. This or that important office is entrusted to others; you are considered good for nothing.” We might add: when you are misunderstood, and your good intentions are taken for ill. When your ideas, good works, etc. are attributed to someone else and they get the praise. When no one hears you, when you are forgotten or left out, and so on. When you find yourself in these situations, know that the Lord is trying to instil in you the virtue of humility.
So there we have it. It might be a good practice to pick just one of the above to work on for a period of time, say, a month or so, until it has become a well-rooted habit, and then move onto another.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like Yours! Mary, Mother most humble, pray for us!
The Bible: RSV
The Imitation of Christ. Thomas a Kempis. (Online version here)