Our Sunday readings use the word humble over and over, but who wants that? Humble pie is not delicious, and asking us to belittle ourselves doesn’t sound like the God who loves us. I’m having a kind of Princess Bride moment: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So, what does it mean to be humble, in a spiritual sense?
One description that I appreciate comes from Mother Teresa. She says, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” So, humility is keeping it real.
Henri Nouwen says much the same thing:
Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God’s beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.
So, humility is not self-effacement, nor is it self-promotion. Neither of these are of God. Humility is knowing who we really are – limited and gifted, imperfect and good, broken and beloved – and living out of that.
It reminds me of what my community’s founder, Jean Martin Moye, calls simplicity. He invites us not only to present our authentic selves to each other but to be genuine before God as well. “Simplicity is a virtue that makes us go to God sincerely – without deviation, without dissembling, with an upright intention, having no other aim than to please God – and makes us act and speak with our neighbor in a direct manner, without deceit or malice.”
It sounds straightforward, but being unapologetically myself before God and other people has never been easy for me. That probably explains my great love of self-help books. The lure of improvement is hard to resist. If I just lose a few pounds, find the right concealer to hide my flaws, become more holy, or (fill in the blank), then I will be happy. Then I will finally arrive. The self-help genre is doing quite well, so I guess I’m not the only one who is taken in by the desire to be perfect.
Growth itself is not a bad thing, but not feeling good enough until I achieve certain things is a trap. I could spend my whole life waiting to live! Humility draws me away from the allure of believing I have to get better to be loved. It moves me toward the God who loves me as I am. I’m enough because God is enough. Yes, I have room for improvement. But God provides, and I trust that God will help me to grow in the ways that I need to grow.
What has helped me to grow in humility is my community, and I mean that in the best sense possible. Because of our call to simplicity, we are what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of people. Simplicity was one of the first things I noticed about my sisters when I met them. I was an insecure twenty-something right out of college, and I was drawn to the realness of the sisters. They were freely themselves, and that freed me to be myself.
I’m still on the way to true humility, but it helps to surround myself with people who live transparently, who are who they are with each other and with God. When we are comfortable with ourselves as we are, we create a space of openness for other people, as Jesus invites in the Gospel (Lk 14:13). Freeing ourselves invites freedom for others.
Eating humble pie is not true humility. Neither self-deprecation nor self-aggrandizement will bring me closer to God. I know myself, and I don’t like humble pie. I prefer pumpkin.
So, what’s your pie? And how is God calling you to humility?
I want to leave you with some prayerful affirmations and reflection questions. (Well, they’re for you and for me too.) I invite you to quiet yourself, to be honest with yourself, and to open your heart to what God has to say to you.
God made you, and so you are good just as you are. Can you trust that?
What if the way you look is just right – the things you like and the things you think are flawed – everything? God looks at you with love and delight, so why don’t you? Take a moment to just be in your body and be okay. You’re okay.
You’re loveable, just as you are right now, flaws and all, at this very moment. Sure, you have room to grow, but can you trust that God will help you to grow in exactly the ways you need? And can you trust that God will be with you through it all, so that challenges won’t be too painful, or when they are, you’ll know you’re not alone?
Can you trust that your growth is not insurmountable, because God is there with you, loving you all along the way?
By Sister Leslie Keener, CDP
Sister Leslie Keener, CDP is the director of God Space, a community-building spirituality ministry in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. She’s a Sister of Divine Providence with a Masters in Ministry and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University. She directs retreats, meets with people for spiritual direction, and serves as the vocation director for her community. She also serves on the Coordinating Council of Spiritual Directors International. She enjoys music, meaningful conversations, and dancing. And pumpkin pie, of course.