Can we cultivate the virtue of humility?

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

“Unless you become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This was the Gospel I heard two Sundays ago while Isaac, our two-year old, slept warm and heavy on my lap.

I get it.

Toddlers are so unassuming, so forgiving, so transparent, so loving, so humble, so attractive. Scripture tells us in many places that God is drawn to the humble, the poor in spirit, the little ones. In this is their supreme power, their wealth.

In this season of infancy and todd-lerhood God offers us great studies in humility and the greatest lessons in life and love, if we pay attention.

Children provide their parents with exercises in humility too. Just by being themselves they reveal to us the limits of our own resources – our patience, perseverance, courage, kindness, gentleness.

They reveal to us the limits of our physical and mental strength, just how much we can put our bodies and minds through. They can bring us to our knees in desperate prayer! It doesn’t take long once the child realises that we can’t be the supermum or dad that we might have once dreamt of being.

Another way parents grow in humility is when we realise that while we have a huge role in forming our children, we can’t claim responsibility when they do well.

We have to step back and allow them to claim their own choices, their own commitment and their own achievements. Of course, the consoling side to that is that we can’t blame ourselves entirely for their heartaches and failings either.

There are many upsides to being more humble – our expectations of ourselves are simpler, so we are less likely to become disappointed, frustrated, angry, and lose hope. We think less of our own good qualities and appreciate others’ good qualities more, so are more forgiving. As humility increases, so do our peace, gratitude, happiness and hopefulness.

And I think, of all the virtues, humility is a relatively easy one to try to cultivate. We only need to look at God and at everything that Jesus did – and then look at ourselves.

There are 31 days in October and I’ve decided to make the most of them by trying to grow in a specific virtue, the one written about and exemplified by some of the saints we celebrate this month: St Thérèse of Lisiuex, St Teresa of Avila, St Francis of Assisi. And then there’s Our Lady who, in her crystal-perfect humility, called herself both the handmaid and the magnifier of the Lord.

If months can be thought to have a theme, then surely October is the month of humility.

Pope Francis tweeted recently: “God loves the lowly. When we live humbly, he takes our small efforts and creates great things.”

He himself has shown a preference for the humble, poor and less-flashy. When travelling, he is drawn to children, to the elderly, to people in prison or with disabilities.

Every day this month I’ll be doing something – or refraining from doing something – to try to cultivate this virtue that so many (if not all) the saints and holy people of every world religion have so highly prized and which is so antithetical in our culture.

On my blog I’ll also be asking a different person each week, someone devoted to the life of faith, either a priest, religious or lay person, one thing that humility means to them, one thing it is not, and for their advice on how to develop this virtue.

There’s a funny irony to trying to achieve greater humility. Once we take pride in achieving it, we don’t have it!

We will never know when we are humble, but God will know. We can only keep trying and trusting our efforts are doing some good.

Isaac’s humility is that he is simply himself. He knows that he is good, but he is quite unconscious of all the good he is doing, to his mother, father, and siblings especially.

It’s a quality Jesus asks us to be intentional about cultivating, but ultimately it’s impossible to achieve as adults without the gift of God.