Years ago, when I was beginning my training in spiritual direction, I had the opportunity to spend a month in community with a group of Benedictine monks and nuns. There were many insights God gave me through their friendship, but one particular lesson was something they embodied more than taught: humility.
They were a humble community. They didn’t draw attention to their humility or promote it—which seems like an obvious thing to say, except I’ve seen humility put on display in some circles where I’ve traveled. One of the early chapters of the Rule of Benedict offers twelve steps of humility that monks will take in their journey. Humility is the fertile soil of the monastic life.
One of the monks recommended a book by a Benedictine abbot. There I read these words: “To be humble is to be realistic about what one can or cannot achieve by personal effort. It is opposed, not to self-esteem, but to the illusion of personal autonomy.”*
Humility does not call our value into question; rather, it questions our illusion of autonomy. Humility opposes pride. It isn’t having an “I suck” attitude. It’s acknowledging that I’m dependent on Someone greater than myself.
Humility focuses our attention on treasuring God rather than devaluing ourselves. Humility grows in the direction of un-self-consciousness, and that can’t be achieved directly. It is a fruit of learning to fix our gaze on God moment by moment.
Too often it seems that our vision of leadership in North American contexts presumes the presence of pride. Humility seems somehow antithetical to influence. And yet Jesus is gentle and humble in heart, and I cannot think of anyone in all of human history who has exerted greater influence than he has.
Humbling yourself does not mean thinking little of yourself. It means not focusing on yourself but instead letting yourself be captivated by the majestic and beautiful presence of God with us. If you humble yourself in this way, you’ll find that you are indeed lifted up by God’s gracious hand. Humility becomes a gift that fills us with gratitude.
*Demetrius Dumm, Cherish Christ Above All: The Bible in the Rule of Benedict (Latrobe, PA: Saint Vincent Archabbey Publications, 2002), p. 32.