In Humility of Heart

‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ Matthew 11:29

When we take time to stop and look around at the world we have created for ourselves, what do we see?

At its worst, we seem to have built our house on the sands of an economic system based on a false belief in unlimited growth and on an overestimation of the Earth’s capacity to withstand our exploitation of its resources.  It’s a society that fosters the adulation of the private self and the fulfilment of our most superficial desires. The closed minded arrogance and over-confidence of our political leaders has divided us and our attitudes of superiority and suspicion are being amplified so that they can be used to justify discrimination and injustice against the most marginalised of our neighbours. As a result we have seen the erosion in the quality of our communal relationships.

In many ways ours is an age of individualism where self-interest and self-importance are exalted at the expense of selflessness and compassion. It’s in our politics, our economics and often even in our personal relations with one another.

We’d be wise to remember how things that overinflate have a tendency to deflate. Perhaps this is why there is anxiousness and a deep sense of spiritual emptiness underlying our posturing. I sense, in these times of rapid change and uncertainty, a prevailing mood of despair and hopelessness even amongst those who claim to possess a strong faith.

Humility as antidote

‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Matthew 23:12

However, we might find consolation in understanding that there is nothing new under the sun. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth century, for instance, fled the corrupt and complacent civilization of the Roman Empire for the frontier lands of the Egyptian desert. There they established alternative communities to challenge a social order based on strict hierarchy and excessive pride. Today we might regard them as extreme in their asceticism and devotion to ‘daily martyrdom’[1], but that, I think, is to fundamentally misunderstand them. Theirs’ was a project that sought to strip away the pretences of the world in order to get to the authentic core of their Christian faith, and at the centre of this spirituality was the humbled and surrendered heart. ‘Therefore, brothers,’ advised Abba Pachomius, ‘let us be equal, from the least to the greatest, whether rich or poor, perfect in harmony and humility.’

I think we still have much to learn from the way in which their ‘city in the desert’ embraced people from all levels of society. They appeared to have an instinctive understanding of how humility is an essential component for the building of inclusive and diverse communities of faith.

Sadly, humility’s importance has not always been understood. In the Greco-Roman world of the early Christians it was a despised trait viewed as a sign of social inferiority and political weakness.[2] Famously, Nietzsche decried it as slavish and servile, a humiliating suppression of human potential, and the ‘umbleness’ of Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep linked it to hypocrisy and manipulation.

However, in recent years there has been a notable re-evaluation of this virtue, particular as defined by those in the field of psychology. It is now regarded as a cluster of pro-social behaviours and attitudes[3]  associated with increased life satisfaction, gratitude, and self-esteem.[4] Furthermore, from a religious perspective, it is being rediscovered as a way to connect to a simpler and more honest faith. ‘The chief mark of counterfeit holiness,’ writes Andrew Murray in his classic work on the subject, ‘is its lack of humility.’[5]

I am hoping to explore these ideas and others in my course, In Humility of Heart, which runs from 25-27 February 2019 at Woodbrooke.

Defining humility

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Matthew 5:3

Although there is a lack of consensus as to the definition of humility, there are commonalities in the ways thinkers have approached it.  To some, the heart of humility lies in our understanding of our natural condition of complete dependence, whether this is on each other, on creation, or on God. Others see it as springing from an apprehension of divine grace or explain it in terms of a faithful surrendering to the work of the Spirit. It has been described as the ‘mother’ and ‘summit’ of all virtues and the ‘manifestation of a heart consumed with love’, signalling ‘deep, inner conformity’ with the mind of Christ. More simply, Bernard of Clairvaux defined humility as truth and the willingness to live truthfully.

More practically it can be defined as ‘the displacement of self’ in favour of others, or as a state of interior stability characterised by an accurate sense of self. Psychologist June Price Tangney[6] offers the following defining characteristics:

  • Accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements;
  • The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations;
  • Openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice;
  • A keeping of one’ s place in the world in perspective;
  • A relatively low self-focus, a “forgetting of the self”, while recognizing that one is but one part of the larger universe;
  • Appreciation of the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world

Informed by my understanding of Quaker tradition, a personal definition would include all of the above but would also add:

  • Recognition of the reality of God
  • Remembrance of our status as creatures
  • Acceptance of our common equality before God
  • Faithful, obedient discipleship
  • Solidarity with the lowly and humiliated
  • Renunciation of one’s undeserved social status

However, for me the most useful definition is this one, that to be humble is to love God and one’s neighbour with all your whole being and without condition.

Cultivating humility

‘And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven’ Genesis 28:12

One of the difficulties with humility is that it is so very hard to cultivate within oneself. In the Christian tradition, it’s usually considered to be the fruit of one’s spiritual growth rather than a disposition one arrives at through regular practice. We mustn’t be discouraged by this, however, as there is also a convention of explaining it as a sequence of behavioural steps represented by a metaphoric ladder to heaven and this has proved to be helpful to many of those wishing to understand where the journey towards humility begins and what its destination might look like.

Firstly we need to recognise that humility is not just another virtue or spiritual practice, but an expression of our experience of God. Only then can we cultivate our spiritual soil in the hope that sufficient grace will be given us. Although, there are things we can do to make ourselves open to this possibility. Therefore, I tentatively offer the following non-exhaustive list as ways in which we might make humility our constant focus. For Quaker readers, it may be an interesting exercise to cross reference this list with the Advices and Queries in your book of discipline.

  • Pray for humility constantly
  • Surrender to the leadings of God
  • Incorporate practices of spiritual discernment and honest self-examination into your daily life
  • Show solidarity for the lowly and humiliated
  • Learn to bear injustice patiently
  • Renounce the signs of your social status, avoid flattery and reject worldly honours
  • Resolve to serve everyone, especially the proud and undeserving
  • Listen attentively and be willing to learn from others
  • Recognise the degree of humility in others
  • Help to create a faith community in which the practice of mutual humility is encouraged

In Humility of Heart runs from 25-27 February 2019 at Woodbrooke

[1] Harmless, W. (2004) Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Wengst, K. (1988). Humility: solidarity of the humiliated. London: SCM Press.

[3] Worthington, Jr. E., Davis, E., Hook, J. ed. (2017). Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Applications. New York: Taylor and Francis.

[4] Rowatt, W. C., Powers, C., Targhetta, V., Comer, J., Kennedy, S., & LaBouf, J. (2006). Development and initial validation of an implicit measure of humility relative to arrogance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 198–211.

[5] Murray, A (1982) Humility. New Kensington: Baker Publishing Group

[6] June Price Tangney (2000). Humility: Theoretical Perspectives, Empirical Findings and Directions for Future Research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 70-82