How to Live Better with Humility
There’s a joke where two men walk into a church, fall to the ground and pray, “Lord, I am nothing!” Then, when the church janitor comes in and prays the same prayer, the first man says to the second, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!” False humility—and how to counter it—is Cora Evans’ theme of the fourth letter lesson. She calls it reproach: at once a good spiritual practice and a very tricky one at that. Souls striving for holiness should examine themselves on the virtue of humility, though “it is not uncommon for misled souls to use the word as a means of impressing friends that they are nothing and of little use in the world. To say that we are of no worth is to say that we are slothful and not trying to perfect ourselves for God.”
How do we get to a definition of authentic humility? Cora points out two key components: our intrinsic worth and an honest acknowledgment of our sin. Both components need to stay in balance and keep each other in check. A faulty balance could result in over-esteeming ourselves or seeing nothing but sin and wickedness.
Paradoxically, authentic humility can at once say that we are nothing and everything. Both descriptions come from God Himself. On the one hand, we are nothing without God; none of us willed our existence, or can will the perpetuation of our existence. Everything we have, we have been given by God. St. Paul was very plain with the Galatians: “if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (6:3). On the other hand, all the gifts of God are freely given to us out of love. What we possess by gift (not by essence) is of infinite value. We are creatures made in the very image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27), which is one of the bases for all of moral theology. Out of the innumerable amount of ways that God could’ve created us, He deliberately chose to create humanity in His own image. This is incredible! Human souls have an eternal essence given to us by our loving Creator, and thus are of infinite value. This is why Jesus cautions us, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matt 16:25). That is, what could the finite world possibly offer in exchange for something infinite?
If the dignity of the Holy Trinity weren’t enough to assign value to humanity, we can find an even greater illustration of human dignity on the cross. Christ shed His blood for us! The blood that surpassed the blood of the myriads of sacrifices under the Old Covenant (cf. Heb 9:11-14) and the blood that redeemed us (cf. Eph 1:7). To our loving savior, we are priceless. Cora reflects that “souls are masterpieces; our visible life is the canvas upon which we try painting the image of Jesus. An artist who has worked with his canvas in a storm, dim light, and morning frosts cannot say it is worthless. His effort alone has made it a pearl without price. And we must not forget that through receiving the sacrament of baptism and then Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, He, the artist, for the moment took the brush from our hands and with a stroke of blessing through His priests administering, gave life to each portrait.”
In case that approach remains too abstract, Cora Evans provided a great picture to show us our infinite worth. She called us princes and princesses—children of the royal household of Christ the King. Here the definition of humility requires a certain confidence, even if it seems counterintuitive. “We must cultivate the spirit of dignity that is expected of us,” Cora notes, although that confidence cannot surpass that of Our Lord. “That dignity is regal only when it is founded in humility. This shall not be difficult when we realize that we are apprenticed to the Master teacher and personification of humility, Jesus.”
The second part of authentic humility is an honest acknowledgment of our sin. Cora continues with the image of a portrait: “in life, our faults and sins may have dimmed the portrait.” It affects us all, from the holiest soul to the most wicked. The longest chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule is on humility, and lists twelve degrees. I didn’t have to read very far down the list to spot my sins and weaknesses. When we reflect on those sins and weaknesses, the purpose isn’t self-flagellation but purification. The logical consequence of the first part of authentic humility, that we are of infinite value, is that we take good care of the soul entrusted to us. “We must attempt, with God’s grace, to restore our portrait to its original living beauty. In the restoring process, we shall know that as children of the royal household, we must be kept in the state of cleanliness, dignity, peace, and love, framed in the gold-leaf beauty of Mother Church.” In going to confession, performing works of penance, and stepping up the life of prayer, we are better equipped to cooperate with God’s grace.
The two parts of authentic humility create balance with one another when paired together. It’s a balance that needs to be attended to, as life circumstances may cause us to lean one way or the other. To stay balanced, Cora suggests (as in her other Letter Lessons) some practical tips for maintaining a healthy sense of reproach and humility.
1. We must live in our state of life “and that which is demanded of us.”
That is the foundation of wisdom, which in turn “fosters prudence (see Prov 9:10)”. Try to drive away any thoughts of a ‘pretend self’ and the thought that ‘if my life was different in this way, I could be more holy.’ By either His perfect will or His permitted will, God has us where we are right here, right now. Focusing on the pretend self draws our attention away from reality, and from the need to progress in the spiritual life. There’s nothing the pretend self can do in the real world, and it is of no use to us!
2. “Never cease with personal education (see Wis 6:12-13).”
Personal education can come in all sorts of forms, and it begins with a humble assumption: I do not know everything. Education could take the form of reading books on a new subject or taking classes. To further your education in the Catholic faith, resources abound. Podcasts, YouTube videos, and online Catholic institutes are available to anyone with access to the internet. What’s one thing you could do to further your education in the faith or in life?
3. Remember that there is an appropriate place for sorrow and mourning.
Cora warns us about sharing our sorrows, crosses, and ills. “Sorrow in its place (Eccl 3:1) is a source of grace, but even sorrows should be shared with wise friends.” The point of this warning is not to bottle up suffering in an unhealthy way, but to avoid broadcasting it in a similarly unhealthy way. Cora notes that from time to time “it is necessary for emotional release to seek solace from living friends.” But to those that constantly wear their sorrows, crosses, and ills on their sleeves in a “detailist” way promote vice in themselves and in their friends. “A detailist broadcasting sorrows that should be buried and forgotten is fostering pride. And when we make our friends feed upon this poor diet through hearing, we steal from [their] time, patience, love, and great graces which they could be earning in other ways than listening to the draft of forgotten yesterdays.” With this warning, Cora reminds us of the intricacy of the Body of Christ. Every baptized Christian has a special bond with Christ and with the other members of the Body. With the bonds of unity formed by Jesus, there is no such thing as a private sin. In modern times (Cora wrote the fourth Letter Lesson in 1954), social media presents a vast platform for the airing of grievances, sorrows, and ills. How does your social media usage align with the practice of true humility?
4. Practice penance.
In the Sense Mortification section, Cora gives an interesting practice that combines penance and humility. To mortify the sense of touch, Cora suggested that we “not allow our arms to rest nor touch the seat back ahead of us. Keeping our arms above the rest to about a half inch will allow no one to observe our penance if we are careful (see Mt 6:17-18).” It is a penance that anyone could do, in nearly any place that had a chair. On top of that, it would be nearly imperceptible to anyone nearby.
5. Track your Spiritual progress.
As Cora has noted in previous Letter Lessons, she has counter beads to mark her progress or failings throughout the day. Is there a way you keep track of spiritual progress (or lack thereof) during the day?
Take a moment to sit with the subjects that Cora Evans wrote about: reproach, humility, the masterpiece of every human, the royal household, concupiscence, and not broadcasting sorrow. Developing the virtue of humility requires a genuine effort on our part. I think it’s the hardest virtue to cultivate, with patience in a close second. Building up of a virtue is a marathon, not a sprint. Take Cora’s advice on her practical suggestions and start small. Keep cultivating little by little. You will be tilling the soil of your heart for the Lord of the harvest!