Humility has never been my strong suit, which seems somewhat odd to me because I’m not a bragger or a diva. In fact, I trend toward the low end of the self-esteem spectrum. But humility is a tricky thing because it seems ever so close to humiliation, which never feels good. Before you know it, pride rears its ugly head and ego is right behind it. Once ego is involved, all bets are off.
The truth is that humility is something we’re all meant to work toward, the virtue above all virtues, a characteristic you can sense when you meet someone who embodies it. The Spirit is obviously swirling around a person like that, giving off the clear vibe that he or she has thrown off the shackles of typical human existence and put on something better, transcendent. And usually when you catch a whiff of someone like that, you think: “I want that kind of peace.”
So how do the rest of us get there? For me, it’s a daily battle. I wake up every morning and think: “Today will be different. Today I will get it right.” But usually before lunch I’ve gotten it wrong, and I’m left shaking my head and wondering what I could have done differently.
“Humility can only get into the heart via humiliation,” Pope Francis says. “There is no humility without humiliation, and if you are not able to put up with some humiliations in your life, you are not humble.”
Why does God’s way always have to be so difficult?
So often I say I want real transformation. I map out elaborate plans to bring it about. Prayer schedules and exercise routines, eating habits and writing goals. Unfortunately, when I think about transformation, I do so on my own terms, which are not necessarily God’s terms. God’s version of transformation is usually a lot more complicated and difficult, sometimes even downright painful. Yet most of us can see with 20/20 hindsight that the best and strongest parts of us have not been forged by lukewarm shifts, but by the burning fire of challenge.
Real transformation requires real faith. Do I have it? For most of my life, the answer would have been a resounding yes. Now I’m not so sure. If I had the kind of faith that would mark me as a true follower of Jesus and the Gospel beyond a shadow of a doubt, humility would be my calling card and humiliation would have no sting. I am far from that place. Humiliation leaves me breathless, crying, angry, resentful. Just today, in fact, humiliation left me pulling a crucifix down off my wall because I wanted to be done with God. Then I apologized to Jesus, put him back over my desk, and considered why other people’s opinions (and opinions of me) have so much sway over my view of myself, my life and my trust in God.
“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2Cor 12:9) Do I believe those words, or do I hear them and nod my head, all the while setting out to stake my claim, get what’s coming to me, avoid humiliation at all costs.
I think we reach points in our life when we are given a clear choice: humility or pride, quiet surrender or panicked grasping. I’m at one of those moments. This column almost wasn’t written because what could I give you from a place of panicked grasping? I can give you a reminder to begin again every day even when you think you can’t, to trust that God is there even when all you feel is absence, to sit in silence and ponder whether humility might not be the more peaceful path even if it is not the easiest path.
This Life Lines column originally appeared in Catholic New York.