Humility is the foundation of prayer. CCC 2559
I’ve been thinking a lot about humility lately, as evidenced by another recent post. Here’s the thing. Intellectually, I completely accept that I am nothing, a blob of walking-around mud that can only form this sentence by the grace of unmerited divine favor. My contingent ontological state is nada, zippo, a totally God-dependent goose egg. I wouldn’t even be surprised if other people’s nothing is a better quality than mine, as if I got the beta version before nothing was actually perfected. So why does my intellectual assent to nothingness not trickle down into a more fully realized, humble life? If I know that I am nothing, why do I keep holding on to a pretend something? If the subset of people making up my acquaintances were forced to choose between only the epitaphs of “humble servant” or “arrogant jerk,” can I be sure what the stonemason would be carving?
And of course, even more important than whether other people “feel the love” is what this means to the life of prayer. Blessed Mother Teresa wrote that “it is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.” To “realize” of course she means not just that intellectual understanding I already possess, but a deep embrace of emptiness, which is a kind of little death, and therefore pretty terrifying. As St. Augustine put it in his Confessions, “I feared to be freed of all the things that impeded me, as strongly as I ought to have feared the being impeded by them.”
On one hand, it seems almost counter-intuitive that seeking humility would be terrifying. But only if we don’t think about it too hard. Mother Teresa also wrote, “You acquire humility only by accepting humiliations. All that has been said about humility is not enough to teach you humility.” And so this means that if I wish to be united with God, to be filled with Him, I must not only suffer humiliations (note the plural in her quote), but learn to accept them, even desire them, as the price paid for something of inestimable value. That’s all great – in theory. In practice, I too often want to cry out “This saying is hard, who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60).
I’m perfectly ready to have my head hacked off by some Muslim nut job if it comes to that. Heck, there are some days that sounds like the express train to Sanctification City. Blood of the martyrs, etc., etc. – ticket punched! “Any last requests?” “Yes, would you be so kind as to explicitly ask me to reject Christ before you kill me? I don’t want there to be any mix-ups.” But please Lord, don’t make me face the truth about this pretend piece of myself that I’m holding onto for dear life. Don’t let all the other nothings see that my nothingness, my poverty, really isn’t the something I pretend it to be. Why can’t I be filled with you in private and still maintain my public illusions?
Of course it doesn’t work that way. Fr. Bernard Bro, O.P. writes “Does not accepting poverty [humility] mean accepting a conversion, agreeing to change the fundamental direction of one’s life?” I guess if I’m being honest that is what really scares me. It’s not just that humiliations involve a tearing down of one’s self in both public and private, a diminishing in the eyes of the world and in the mirror. It is that humility demands a change of life. And I don’t know what that entails. I don’t know what might happen to me. I don’t know what pain or humiliations might be involved, which favorite pieces of me will be shown to be illusion and scrubbed away. I truth, I only know one thing. If I really want to be filled with God, to energize the life of grace of the Spirit dwelling in me, and have any prospect of significantly growing in holiness -well, then it’s put up or shut up time.