It was recently suggested to me that, simply by witnessing ones characteristics and manners, it can be understood whether or not one is humble. Although humility can undoubtedly be transforming on an outward level, and can be experienced or witnessed through external deeds, is it really as closely related to our characteristics and mannerisms as we often assume?
From the Old Testament, through to the Gospels and St Paul’s Epistles, we realise humility is a fundamental virtue. As a key element and example of Christ’s life, Christians are called to imitate His humility; seen in all its fullness on the Cross, as our Lord and God sacrifices Himself ‘for the life of the world,’ (John 6:51) emptying Himself, ‘taking the form of a servant.’ (Phil 2:7)
Our Lord however, as the archetype of humility, seems to contradict some of our common misconceptions of humility; overturning ‘the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons’ saying ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer..’ (Matt 21:12-13) This would seem harsh, abrupt, emphatic, or rude, and therefore contrary to most common descriptions of humility.
St John of Kronstadt describes humility as distancing ourselves from pride, which is often manifested in the judging of others, and our impatience or irritability when others oppose or annoy us. For St John, humility is purely based on our relationship with God, flowing through to our relationships with others, in our efforts to be patient, understanding, and fundamentally to love. Christ teaches us to serve, (Matt 20:25–28) to offer ourselves to the other, doing ‘nothing from selfishness or conceit.’ (Phil 2:3) Our Lord is the very definition of humbleness, not because of personal characteristics, but because He associates Himself with the lowest, cares about the least, becoming a true servant to all.
Particularly within Church circles, we are quick to judge whether a priest, sister or brother is loud, quiet, ‘show-offy,’ harsh, strict, too lenient, too soft, not passionate enough about the faith, crazy, lazy, too ‘rough’ or ‘theatrical.’ Often we associate humility with quietness, tenderness, or perhaps even lack of emotion, or energy. However, our Scriptures and teachings of the Saints do not speak of such humility based on characteristics or individual mannerisms at all, but rather something deeper, within the heart of man. As Christians, we are not called to act in the same way, converse with the same manner, speak with the same accent, or have the same personal characteristics. The Church unites us, and by doing so brings out all our individual personalities in their fullness, with this diversity of persons being a wonderful gift to Christ’s body, His Church.
Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans is abundantly clear on this matter; ‘Though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another, we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them..’ (Rom 12:5-8)
Similarly, Saint Augustine, realising our various ways of humbly reaching out with love to our fellows, and knowing the importance of discretion, tells us; ‘If you keep silent, keep silent by love: if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love; let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow. Love and do what you will.’
For this reason, it is surely limiting, and contrary to our understanding of what humility is, when we often look for, and focus on certain outward behaviours. We are surrounded with such diverse personalities, characters, images of God, who can be equally humble, self-sacrificing, servants of God, in their own personal ways, within their own contexts and ways of expression. Both the loud, emotive, rather harsh Bishop, and the sedate, perhaps sombre monastic can equally treasure God’s wonderful, yet diverse gift and virtue of humility. May we also, through the sacramental life of His Church, and through our own prayerful struggle acquire this virtue; in our own personal contexts.