In the Soil of Humility, the Flower of Tenderheartedness

Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Basically, humility is seeing yourself as you really are. . . . So, set your heart on working toward [it]. . . . Live up to your high calling by lowering yourself. Become more loving to your spiritual partner, never forgetting how he — almighty God, King of kings, and Lord of lords — chose to humble himself for you. . . . [G]row in humility . . . by remembering God’s goodness and love.
— Anonymous,The Cloud of Unknowing

I was watching our seven-year-old son who had been playing a long time, rolling Matchbox cars across “roads” in the den rug’s intricate patterns and blowing car noises through his lips. When I said, “You’re so handsome,” he stopped, looked at me, tilted his head, simply said, “I know,” then resumed crawling across the floor blasting out, “Bbbbbbbbbb.”

This was years ago, but the humility in my young son’s answer has stayed with me. He didn’t refuse my praise awkwardly nor linger on it long afterwards, inventorying his handsome features as if responsible for designing his own face. He accepted my compliment and went on about his business. I thought then, He must feel secure in our love, and I realized whoever feels safe in God our Father’s love could live out of such real humility.

That wasn’t me then. I used to think humility meant belittling myself. My internal tape was loud with comments such as I’m stupid. I’m ugly. I couldn’t accept kindness, either, routinely deflecting “You look great!” with negativities like “My hair didn’t turn out right today,” or “Awesome dress!” with “It’s old. Got it on sale.”

Constantly asking, What is humility? I searched and pondered Scripture, saw a counselor, and read a ton of books by Ann Ulanov. I came to realize humility is not synonymous with self-hatred and knew my self-loathing had to die. It did, slowly, in the dawning reality — God loves me — and in the deepening understanding of what true humilty is.

I’ve learned that asking “What is humility?” — monasticism’s heart — is always worth far more than any “definitive” answer. Humility has always proven difficult to define and even harder to embody, although monastic Benedict of Nursia was likely the best at both. His Rule’s Chapter 7 on humility reminds us that this virtue has a definite shape; for example, Benedict says the humble person will “speak gently . . . with few and sensible words, and . . . be not loud of voice.”1

Monastic Bernard of Clairvaux articulates another truth about humility: “Sine humiliatione, nulla humilitas — without humiliation, there’s no humility,” or, “Humiliation is the road to humility.”2 I am encouraged that humility can come from each “failure and shortcoming,” for I have more flops and flaws than I ever will successes and strengths. These do not have to lead to self-loathing, but to healthy humility.

Fr. Thomas Keating’s wisdom that humiliation can open up more room inside me for the Holy Spirit, helped me also: “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story . . . [but] a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound[,] . . . [making] room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.”3

Nineteenth-century missionary Andrew Murray expands on the link between humiliations and humility: “[L]et each failure and shortcoming simply urge us to turn humbly and meekly to the meek and lowly Lamb of God, in the assurance that where he is enthroned in the heart, his humility and gentleness will be one of the streams of living water that flow from within us.”4

The word humility grows out of the Latin humilis for “low, lowly,” literally “on the ground,” from humus for “earth,” reminding us of our need as humans, “creatures of earth,” to see and to transcend through Christ’s grace the sin we all have. Our human nature needs the grounding of Christ’s humble nature.

Scripture explains the humility of Christ’s incarnation: “[B]eing in the very nature God, [he] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul describes other characteristics of Christ-like humility: Avoid doing anything from selfish ambition or an arrogant desire to brag, value others above my self, and look not to my own interests but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Wanting to learn humility, I can ask for the grace to imitate Christ’s.

Murray also describes how Christ’s humility helps us handle difficulties with others:

Life on earth means that we will experience temptations to be impatient or irritable, to think resentfully or speak harshly. People around us will make mistakes. They will even sin against us. When humble people face that kind of test, they will bring up from their hearts a law that is written there: “You must bear with each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others” (Colossians 3:13). They have learned that in putting on the Lord Jesus they have “clothed themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). . . . [Christ’s] humility . . . is tenderhearted.5

So when I sin or when I experience insult, heartbreak, or the aggravation of watching that person ahead of me pile up 38½ items on the conveyor belt in the “15-Items-Or-Less Express Lane” at Kroger, I can, through Christ, forgive myself and others. The streams of living water of Christ’s gentleness and humility, toward myself and toward others, can flow.

1. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/benedict/rule2/files/rule2.html#ch7 and Carmen Butcher, Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2nd edition, 2012), 88-89, 149.
2. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 34 on The Song of Songs; see http://www.pathsoflove.com/bernard/songofsongs/sermon34.htmland André Louf, The Way of Humility (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 49-52.
3. Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, Wit Lectures-Harvard Divinity School (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), 38.
4. Andrew Murray, Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), 56; (first publisher was New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1895).
5. Murray, 18.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)

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