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Visum Monachae… On Humility

Sister Edith Bogue

Humility is not a highly-valued quality. Workshops offer to help us become confident or innovative, but never humble. One job ad on Duluth’s listed “humble” as desirable; it was dead last: “9. Be self-directed, energetic, motivated, driven, and humble.” Psychologists discovered that humility is linked to happy romances and solid work relationships. Nonetheless, the life-hack bloggers don’t push humility. It seems like a virtue from a bygone era.

Benedictines have a different view. St. Benedict wrote more about humility than any topic except prayer. He held it as a key quality for anyone in authority. If monastic leaders or artisans became puffed up about their work, he reproved them. Those who could not or would not change, he moved to other jobs. Benedict assigned everyone to do manual labor and menial tasks to promote humility. Anyone could be asked to help with any task, wherever help was needed. The cook, the accountant, the farmer, and the cleaner are all essential in a well-run monastery. St. Benedict’s view recognizes the dignity and importance of all labor.

A great 20th century leader, Nelson Mandela, named humility as the key quality of a peacemaker. He told Oprah that “the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Humility is the most important quality you can have. If people realize that you are no threat to them, they will embrace you, they will listen to you.”

Like Mandela, most spiritual writers name self-honesty as the foundation of true humility. It recognizes that everything we have– life, happiness, comfort and companionship– is God’s gift. We could not create any of it with our own power. Humility keeps us from focusing on building a false reputation or conspicuous lifestyle. Then we can recognize and respond to the needs of others. We may be “self-directed, energetic, motivated, and driven” but not for self-aggrandizement. When we receive feedback, even unjust criticism, we respond by listening. We don’t leap to angry self-defense. Humility gives us inner peace in which to choose our best response.

Humility is hard to fake. Scripture tells us that humility is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual writers offer us exercises to strengthen humility and patience. Mother Teresa gave her sisters a 15-item Humility List. She advised them, “do not interfere in the affairs of others, or dwell on their faults… Be courteous and gentle even when provoked… Do not seek to be admired or loved.” C.S. Lewis said it succinctly, “true humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”

Listing humility on your resume may not get you a job or bring you riches. The authenticity that flows from it will enrich all your relationships and help you to be a peacemaker. For many Benedictines, humility is the secret ingredient of a happy life. It might be for you, too.