Humility and the Humble Gesture

Yesterday I did  not blog because we were reading RB 6, On Restraint in Speech, and I took Benedict’s words to heart and kept silent — not for any noble reason but because it seemed appropriate. Today, however, we begin the great chapter on humility, and there is so much rubbish talked about humility (when it is spoken about at all) that I think it worth saying something. First, we must distinguish between humility and the humble gesture.

Pope Francis is a master of the humble gesture, and in the U.S.A. right now he is showing how eloquent such gestures can be. That little Fiat 500 driving through Washington surrounded by huge security vehicles is a case in point. It was wonderful theatre, but theatre with a didactic purpose. He could not have demonstrated more clearly his rejection of luxury and excess, and he did so without actually using the words ‘materialism’ or ‘inequality’. (As an aside, I wonder what Donald Trump made of it all. Was he baffled, irritated, derogatory? Who knows?) Now, the problem with humble gestures is that they can proceed from genuine humility, or they can be mere gestures. In the case of Pope Francis, I certainly think they proceed from a profound humility of being but it would not shock me if, at some future date, I should learn that they were essentially a technique, a showman’s ploy. I say that because it is the business of a pope to teach, and like Benedict’s abbot, he must use every skill at his command (cf RB 2. 23–29). The sight of that little Fiat made me smile, I must confess, because it was witty as well as eloquent. It was an oblique comment on our love-affair, especially the U.S. love-affair, with the internal combustion engine and a lavish use of oil and petro-chemicals. Some of the major themes the pope has been addressing were expressed through his choice of vehicle, and in an age when the visual has such importance, it was nothing less than a little coup de foudre.

But what of humility itself, rather than the humble gesture? Why does it matter? What does it teach us — apart from making us more attractive to others? Humility grounds us in reality, in truth, and as such gives us a firm standing from which to act. It is, as St Benedict makes plain, and as St Bernard was later to observe in his De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (Steps of Humility and Pride), a grounding in God attained through prayer and sacrifice and constant failure. We learn about humility by being proud, by making mistakes, by discovering that we are not the ultimate or best judges of everything. The best antidote to thinking too well of ourselves is to be modest about our own abilities, recognizing them as a gift of God rather than something we have of ourselves or for our own benefit. Not, you notice, disparaging or belittling them or refusing to make use of them, but simply being honest about them. The best way of learning from our mistakes is facing up to them, again honestly, admitting that we were wrong to do such and such or to conclude so and so. As to judgement, I’ve probably said more than enough already this week, but there is one small point to add. Humility does not demand that we say we are wrong when we are right, nor does it require us to remain silent when there is a misunderstanding. Rather, humility urges us to regard truth, to explain ourselves more clearly perhaps, but always courteously and with the aim of furthering understanding. Humility is, ultimately, truth and we learn it best from him who is truth and humility personnified.

The important thing to remember is that the work of humility in us  — and I emphasize that it is a work, a process — begins with prayer, with constant attentiveness to God. There is no short-cut available. In the section of the Rule that we read today Benedict says that ‘holy scripture cries out to us’, clamat nobis scriptura divina. If we would be humble, if we would stand firm on the rock that is Christ, we must begin by listening to him and never give up.