Whenever a modern person sees the word “humility”, they are apt to think of self-abnegation, an unhealthy self-criticism, a ‘being a doormat’. In a word, they consider it unhealthy.
This is because we have enshrined ‘self-esteem’ as the cornerstone of all good ‘values’. But this is playing into the very hands of the demons; for the concept of self-esteem, in itself not a bad idea, can very easily degenerate into pride, the most dangerous of all the vices. It imprisons us into an unhealthy self-concern that blocks out the need to go out of ourselves to discover the people around us and their needs; and ultimately to bring us into a conscious awareness of the presence of God.
Humility, on the other hand, removes the barrier of the self and throws us outwards to the other and also to the Other: God. How else to interpret the seemingly enigmatic words of Christ: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)? Humility does not mean being a doormat to others; it is an energy that removes the obstacles to being in God and becoming a truly fit instrument of the Lord’s will. In a word: it is freedom; to serve God in a free and unencumbered and transparent way.
The word humility is a cognate of the word humus—of the earth. Someone who is humble is grounded in reality, his feet firmly planted on the ground. They are not fooled by elaborate strategy of flattery and manipulation. They are not swayed by the tendency to co-dependency. In a word, they are truly free.
When looked at this way, we can easily see why the saints have all, to the last one, based their entire spiritual system on the foundation of humility.
Simultaneously, the worst of the vices is not lust or gluttony or even envy. The worst of the vices is what is diametrically opposed to humility: pride. Pride is what caused the fall of the angels and the fall of man. Pride sums up all the vices in one lethal cocktail.
Yet this world and its secular hierarchy of values has no place for humility. When has it produced in its plays and films and novels examples of humility to convince and edify humanity? There are tons of superheroes and biographies of supposedly great statesmen who may have made some right decisions in the realm of politics, but whose private lives were a shamble of vices and destructive decisions which were far from being exemplary.
There are exceptions, of course. Dostoyevsky tried to create a Christ-like central figure in Prince Myshkin who is the central character in his novel “The Idiot”. He admitted that it was the hardest of his novels to write and is perhaps the most difficult to read because of the problem of showing a convincing picture of the grace of humility in literature. Much more vibrant are the sinners in his prose, like the murderer Raskolnikov in his novel “Crime and Punishment”. Moreover, we must remember that Dostoyevsky was a convinced Orthodox Christian who knew what he was talking about when he gave us Prince Myshkin.
What freedom is found in humility! Never to be worried about your standing or your place in society, never to be concerned about the opinions of others, never to measure yourself according to the dictates of country or family: these are but a few of the advantages of humility. To be humble is to rest in God and to be concerned only with what God wants of us and leave the rest to others! If we are truly honest with ourselves, we often crucify ourselves on the cross of our opinions and agendas that are inextricably bound with the expectations of others. To be humble is to care only what God thinks, what God wants, what our future with God will be.
Once we taste this freedom and this peace, we will search only for God’s will and rest only in Him. Only someone who has tasted the opposite, who has been at the mercy of other’s expectations, can know the peace that this offers and understand why the saints and mystics are unanimous in seeing humility as the cornerstone and the foundation of the spiritual life, putting all else in the rubbish heap. St. Paul said it beautifully when he wrote: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil. 3:8-9).
He was a humble man.
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine