True and False Humility

Saturday is a busy day, not one for thinking Deep Thoughts, is it? Unfortunately, today happens to be the one on which we read RB 7. 51 to 54, the so-called Seventh Step of Humility, which confronts us with the difference between true and false humility.

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart, humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, ‘I am indeed a worm and not a human being, a byword among men and laughing-stock of the people. I was exalted and have been humbled and brought to confusion;’ (cfr Pss 21[22].7 and 87[88].16) and further, ‘It was good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments.’ (Ps 118[119].71, 73)

At first sight, St Benedict seems rather OTT, urging us to go around admitting our inferiority and comparing ourselves with worms. However, if we pay close attention to his opening words, the quotations from the psalms are given a different context, a much more challenging one. It is easy to say, ‘I’m no good’. It lets us off the hook. We can simultaneously excuse ourselves for any shortcoming and at the same time bask in our own abasement. That is false humility. What St Benedict actually says is rather different.

We are asked, first of all, to believe in our own unimportance. That is not quite the same as proclaiming our unworthiness. In fact, it is a much quieter business altogether, which is why most of us don’t like it. True humility doesn’t draw attention to itself. Secondly, we are given a context for our unimportance. Benedict quotes the Passion psalms, to remind us that our humility is grounded in Christ. We need to think about that. To recognize that we are not the centre of the universe yet are made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a beauty and perfection which is truly God-given, is to see clearly both our infinite worth and our utter dependence upon God. There can be no room for pride in that because it is the vision of truth. In the same way, to realise that our littleness is taken up into Christ’s greatness, that our small disappointments and failures are transformed by the sacrifice of Calvary, is to understand that humility gives us a safe place on which to stand, indeed, the only safe place: in Christ.

This short paragraph of the Rule is a gem, worth mulling over as we go about our Saturday tasks.


7 thoughts on “True and False Humility”

  1. Thank you. You make me see the point very clear and it gives me comfort and joy.
    In Italy we have an old saying: everyone is useful but nobody is indispensable. However nowadays it is very hard to live by this rule and to teach it, not to mention the dependence upon God.
    The guidance now is pride and self gratification, in order to avoid inferiority complex. So the fight is with yourself and your imperfection, but also against the common thinking.

  2. On the other side of the coin it is a belief that can drive low self esteem and perhaps be a factor in mental illness. I have seen people driven to utter despair in the belief that they are inferior to everyone else. In such cases this may then become pathological and lead to suicidal ideation. An absolute tragedy, often borne out of mental distress.

    Please pray for those people afflicted in such a way and give them the insight to recognise their humility has strayed into inaccurate beliefs due to illness and help them find peace and good health again.

    I seem to have gone somewhat off topic but hopefully have provided further food for thought on this subject.

  3. Thank you for your comments.

    Cinzia, I loved your Italian saying!

    Kelly, I quite agree that a sense of inferiority can be a factor in mental illness and we do pray for those who are afflicted with feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness. What I was saying about St Benedict’s teaching should (but obviously didn’t) make it clear that feeling inferior/worthless, or however you like to express it, is a false conception of humility. It doesn’t deserve the name humility at all. Humility requires truth, which is why the truly humble person can and will acknowledge his/her giftedness. To acknowledge one’s giftedness, however, is very different from assuming that the gift somehow makes one a superior person.

  4. Oh, I think I understood what you were saying but was just throwing in some other thoughts. In the depths of despair it is easy to believe that you are truly inferior and of no worth to others. I agree that this is not true humility but a perception at a time when rational thought about oneself is absent.

    I love thought provoking discussion and opening the topic further. Your posts always stimulate further reflection and I am often guilty of not confining my thoughts strictly to the subject of the post. Sorry for taking the discussion off on an unintended tangent!

  5. Don’t apologize! The whole point is to stimulate thought and discussion, but humility is always a fraught subject because so many of us have Uriah Heep-type ideas about it and I just thought I should be careful about what I said. You touch on something that is very important: the despair that only those who have experienced it can really understand. Our society makes such huge demands on people to be ‘bright’, extrovert (!), in control, a ‘success’. The price we pay for that in terms of suffering is enormous.

    • Yes. Our society, which pays so much lip-service to freedom, is actually deeply conformist. I don’t know which is harder, to obey all the rules that it expects people to live by or deliberately to disregard them!

  6. Thank you Kelly for your first comment, and you for your answer Sister, I needed the additional explanation. It’s still a little hard to wrap my head around, but it helps. I am participating in a Servant Leadership seminar at my job, and this past week we were discussing integrity. I remembered a quote (I forget the author) that wrote ‘if you have to tell people about your integrity, you probably don’t have much’
    Humility strikes me to be the same. If I have to tell you about it, I am probably lacking.
    Thank you, always something good to think about

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