Opening the Word: Learning how to cultivate humility

Years ago I came up with a little line that I use from time to time: “I’m especially proud of my humility!” It is meant to be self-deprecating, but also highlight how difficult it is to truly be humble. After all, if I am aware that I am humble, am I actually humble? In his “ Introduction to the Devout Life,” St. Francis de Sales explained, “True humility makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” This seems so counterintuitive, in part because, wounded by sin, we are drawn toward pride, arrogance and being praised. 

Yet real humility requires that we examine and see who we really are. “Humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain,” wrote Venerable John Henry Newman. “It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound.” How true! We see examples of false humility all around us — and within us.  

Jesus, the greatest observer of human behavior and the human heart, saw how the guests at the home of a leading Pharisee were jostling for positions of honor at the dinner table. He took the opportunity to chide them about their priorities and their pride. As was so often the case, Jesus drew upon the Scriptures, even while drawing out deeper meanings from them. Here, he very likely had this passage in mind: “Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of great men; For it is better that you be told, ‘Come up closer!’ than that you be humbled before the prince” (Prv 25:6-7). 

But Jesus’ focus was not, in the end, on seating arrangements at dinner, for he refers instead to “a wedding banquet.” And the banquet Jesus had in mind is not an earthly one, but a heavenly one, the “festal gathering” in the heavenly Jerusalem (see Heb 12:22). His primary concern was not social etiquette, but humility in the face of divine judgment and the Last Day. “For you will be repaid,” he told the guests, “at the resurrection of the righteous.” The clear implication is that the righteous are not self-seeking and prideful. 

Most people are familiar with this well-known, paradoxical statement from today’s reading: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Notice that self-exaltation is always false exaltation. Our attempts to exalt ourselves will eventually crumble, for pride goes before the fall. Yet we are able to humble ourselves, to seek self-abasement and meekness of spirit. 

True humility comes from recognizing who we are in relation to God. “Meekness in itself is nought else, but a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is,” wrote the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Humility includes realizing the fragile and temporal nature of our lives here and now. It means recognizing the limits of our abilities and knowledge, as we hear in today’s reading from Sirach: “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.” The dominant secular culture says otherwise; it seeks in countless ways to push beyond the boundaries of morality, natural law and divine revelation — as if such madness will lead to anything but disaster and spiritual destitution. 

“Humility,” said St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “is the mother of salvation.” Without humility, we starve; with humility, we feast. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of