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placeholder October 21, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers
On not faking humility

Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

It's hard not to fake humility; yet, seemingly, we need to do just that.

For instance, some of the sayings of Jesus on humility seem to raise more questions than they answer. For example, in the parable of taking seats at the table, Jesus suggests that we should not move toward the highest place, lest somebody more important comes along and we will be humiliated by being asked to move lower. Rather, he says, move to the lowest place so that the host might come and ask us to move higher, and in this way our very humility will be showcased before the other guests.

On the surface, this would seem like little more than a strategy to get honored while all the while looking humble.

The biblical invitation to not consider oneself better than others begs the question: Can someone who is living an essentially moral and generous life really believe that he or she is no better than someone who is uncaring, selfish or even malicious in how he or she relates to God, others, and the world? Do we really believe we are no better than others? Did Mother Teresa really believe in her heart that she was no better than anyone else?

And so we can ask ourselves: Is our belief that we are no better than others, often times, really only a pose, something we have to affirm about ourselves but which doesn't stand the full test of honesty? Is our humility, in the end, really not just a subtle strategy to be honored in a deeper, more-respected way? Who wants to be seen as proud and full of himself?

Looking at some diary entries by Bede Griffiths, where Griffiths openly confesses he is no better than anyone else, John Shea asks whether given the quality of Griffiths' moral and spiritual life and given the depth and compassion he developed through years of prayer and discipline could Griffiths really have believed that he was no better than anyone else?

Shea suggests when Griffiths makes those assertions he is not focused on his, or anyone else's, moral actions. At the level of moral actions, it is humanly impossible not to make comparisons. We all make comparisons, even when we deny that we do so. But the roots of humility do not lie in where we stand, above or below, others in terms of our moral actions.

When Griffiths sincerely sees himself and believes himself to be no better than anyone else in this world, he is looking rather at his core, at the depth of his heart, where he sees that he, like everyone else in this world, is vulnerable, alone, fearful, naked, self-centered, inadequate, helpless, contingent, just as much in need of God and others as absolutely every other person on this Earth, and, thus, no better than anyone else.

Nobody gives himself life, sustains himself in life or gives himself salvation. We are all equally inadequate and helpless here. Our contingency levels us all, from Mother Teresa to Hitler, and the key to genuine humility lies in recognizing that. Indeed, the more morally and psychologically sensitive we are, the more likely we are to recognize our neediness and our solidarity in weakness with everyone else. When a Bede Griffiths makes the claim that he is no better than anyone else and that he stands in need of God's mercy just as much as every sinner on earth, he is not faking humility, but he is not making moral comparisons either. He is speaking out of something deeper, namely, the fact that ultimately we are all equally helpless to give ourselves life.

The invitation to humility is a clear and constant echo inside of Christian spirituality, from Jesus, through Bede Griffiths, through Mother Teresa, through every spiritual guide worthy of the name: Become like a little child. Take the lowest place. Never consider yourself better than anyone else. Know that you need God's mercy as much as the greatest sinner on earth. However we don't come to this by comparing ourselves to others, but by recognizing how utterly naked we all stand outside of God's mercy.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.)

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