Is Humility a Virtue?

There is the old saw about the person who won an award for humility and had it withdrawn when the person attempted to accept it. Humility is a strange virtue. Some would not even consider it a virtue but rather a weakness–this was true in Greco-Roman culture. And, the truth is, the people I would consider most ‘humble’ probably wouldn’t consider themselves so, if they even give a thought to themselves.



I am currently reading The Rule of St Benedict and came across this chapter on “Humility”. He elaborates twelve steps toward humility–an interesting list to say the least:

1. Keep the fear of the Lord always before oneself.

2. Love not your own will nor the satisfaction of your own desires.

3. Submit to your superior (in the monastery) with all obedience.

4. Obey in difficult circumstances and embrace hardship or even unjust conditions.

5. Don’t conceal from your abbot the sinful thoughts that come into your heart!

6. Be content with the lowest and most menial condition.

7. Not only admit with your tongue but believe in your heart that you are inferior to all others.

8. Do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and follow the example of your superiors.

9. Control your tongue and do not speak unless asked a question.

10. Do not be given to ready laughter.

11. When you speak, do so briefly, without laughter, with modesty, brevity and reason.

12. Manifest humility in your bearing as well as your heart.

Some of these certainly reflect the context of the monastery, such as the rule of confessing sins, silence, following the common rules of the monastery. Yet even here I see some sense and am challenged–to whom do I admit my less commendable, yes even sinful, thoughts? How often have “too many words” gotten me into trouble (or at least bored my listeners!)? Haven’t some problems in organizational life simply come because I am too proud to submit to the direction of another–even though I do not mind giving direction?

There are some of these that do make sense–foremost, the fear of the Lord. Knowing that one is living one’s life before the God definitely keeps me honest about myself–I have no room for boasting. Obeying in difficult circumstances and being content with even what seems a menial place are actually freeing–freeing from the grasping and grumbling that come when I want to be somewhere else or don’t want to do what is required of me in a given place.

Perhaps the one on which I am most “stuck” is the considering of myself inferior to all others. I actually wonder if Benedict may have gotten this wrong. I actually wonder whether any comparisons to others are beside the point–even though we frequently do this. We are each unique creations of God and uniquely accountable to Him for our lives. How can I appraise the gifts of God “inferior”? Many times, such comparisons just come off to me as false humility. Yet I am also reminded of how St Paul spoke of himself as the “chief of sinners” and he really did mean it as far as I can tell.

Benedict’s words come from another time–and seem like it! I remember the acronym IALAC from my son’s elementary school years–“I am lovable and capable”. What Benedict says seems to be miles away from the culture of affirmation. Yet what I wonder, and I want to read Benedict more closely for this, is whether in fact knowing that one is deeply loved by God, not for what we have done, but “just because” is the most humbling thing of all and if in fact this releases us to embrace at least some of Benedict’s steps, not as rules, but as the joyful practices of God’s beloved.

What are your thoughts on Benedict’s list and on the virtue of humility?

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