One of the hardest things in the world is to be truly humble. This will be especially noticeable in the coming election year.
Many people say they are humble: “Oh no, I don’t need the attention. It’s not about me.”
But saying you are humble and true humility can be two different things. This is true because humility has nothing to do with words. It’s about actions.
At this point in our history, humility seems a rare commodity. It isn’t something most people seem to value. Instead they focus on calling attention to themselves. Just look at how often people use social media, posting what they do, what they think, what they like and — more often — what they don’t like.
Look at how many are angry — mostly because they believe they have been treated unfairly, by employers, by elected officials, by the news media. Yes, even by the church. And, indeed, many people have been treated unfairly. Most of us have, at one time or another and in a variety of ways.
How we react to that unfair treatment can be a sign of humility. Jesus cautioned us to turn the other cheek. But we don’t often do that. It’s hard, after all.
This is why the church, in its wisdom, has us pray the Confiteor (“I confess”) at Mass: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Talk about humility — there’s no room for excuses like “Yes, I did it, but let me explain …” No, it just involves saying “I was wrong.”
Not only that, the Confiteor has us strike our breasts. I see some people at Mass who neglect to do this. For whatever reason, they refuse this act of humility.
But why are we asked to literally “beat ourselves up?” Because the Lord knows we have hard hearts. As Pope Francis said in his Christmas address to the world, we often have “stony and self-centered hearts.” While we might regret something we did, we still nurture self-justification in our hearts. We hold our resentment, anger and even our hurts tightly, and nurture them close, putting a shell around our hearts.
This is why the church asks us to strike those hearts, so that we remember to soften them a bit. Otherwise, we might become like Dr. Suess’ familiar Grinch – with “a heart two sizes too small.”
Humility as a word traces back to the Latin word for earth: humus. We still use the same word for dirt – humus: a rich, organic soil.
Think about dirt. It lies on the ground. We walk on it. We bury things it in. We dump things on it. It gets rained on and turns to mud. Who wants to be like dirt?
But dirt is vitally important. It nurtures things; it keeps seeds safe as they soften and grow; it carries organic material; it molds itself with clay and stones. Without dirt, where would we be?
This can say something about humility. Yes, humble people might get stepped on, or ignored – or even crucified.
But truly humble people do something else — they grow things, they nurture things; they take the mess around them, soften it and sort it. Most of all, they bring about new life.
Too often in our world, we notice the showy things: the loud people, the brazen, those who seek, even crave, attention. They aren’t humble and certainly don’t want to blame themselves or beat their hearts. And they wouldn’t appreciate being equated with dirt. Rather, they’d probably think of themselves as the showy flowers of summer – that often wilt in a storm.
This year, if we strive to be more like earth than showy flowers, we might begin to understand humility.