Monday, July 1, 2019

Why is humility so absolutely necessary in the spiritual life?

It is often said that of all the virtues that are good, important and valuable for us to cultivate and nurture, humility is the one that takes the top spot.  Many saints have lived lives that are marked significantly by humility, and the biographies of numerous saints have shown that they struggled to cultivate this virtue with great effort.  I am convinced of humility’s importance as well as our great resistance to want to live humbly, and it is particularly because the first sin by Adam and Eve was precisely their refusal to live humble lives, wanting instead to let pride and the ego speak in volumes that drowned out the call to humility.  The writer of the book of Genesis must have seen that pride is at the radix of our proclivity to sin that gave him reason to portray it within the story of our beginnings that is seen in this work of his.

The incarnation of Jesus is humility on grand display.  We don’t often think about it much – that God really didn’t have to do this.  There was absolutely no obligation at all for God to go from divinity to humanity.  Yet, out of pure love and grace, this unbelievable outreach made the incarnation happen.  One saint I read about put it in such graphic words when he said “God, in the incarnation, you have gone too far”.  If we really sit and think about it in contemplation, God, seeing how we had chosen to turn our backs on him and his love could simply just have remained unmoved, unchanged and divine but it was because love as God loves isn’t static but dynamic, that caused the incarnation to happen.  

Sin through pride caused the tragedy and death of humankind, and its antithesis, humility, had to be the antidote to redeem us.  Because sin caused humanity’s downward spiral into perdition, humility was God’s similar downward entry into the depths of human depravity to allow us to regain lost entry back to Eden’s glory.  In salvation, God goes down into the depths of humanity to raise us to divinity.

It follows then that our own path toward heaven and holiness necessarily includes our efforts at cultivating humility and living lives marked by humility.  All efforts at humility then become our walking in the footsteps andfootprints of the humble Lamb of God.  The saints intuited this, and we would do well to live in the same way.

Even in the post resurrection encounters of Jesus with his disciples, we see such humility and patience on the part of Our Lord.  The encounter of the resurrected Lord with Peter by the lake is of great significance. Those three times he asked Peter “do you love me?” have so much humility when read in the original Koine Greek.  

Jesus raises the bar of love when he uses the verb “agapas” whilst Peter responds that he loves, but with the verb “phileo”.  Biblical scholar Raymond Brown takes pains to explain that in Jesus’ asking three times the same question, Jesus isn’t at all insecure or deaf to Peter’s answer, but is giving Peter the opportunity to raise his level of love to that of an agapelove.  But Peter realizes he isn’t capable of that.  It is in this light that Jesus finally goes down to Peter’s level of love and on the third offer of love, asks Peter if he can love with a phileolove, to which Peter answers in the affirmative.  It is with this love that the first Bishop fed Jesus’ sheep.

But we know that Peter’s love really didn’t remain at the level of phileo(associated with fondness – not deep and abiding).  As Peter’s realization of how loved he was by Jesus whom he betrayed in such a personal way, denying Jesus three times, that love that began as phileogrew and matured to finally end up being an agapelove, where it is love of the purest and most selfless type.  It took humility of Jesus to lower the bar to Peter’s level, and it was Peter’s humility to admit that he was not yet ready to love at that high level.

It is humility that brings any sinner to the sacrament of confession.  It doesn’t take much or any humility to raise our head to heaven in the privacy of our own room or where there is no one to hear us asking God for his mercy.  That’s the way most of our separated brethren do this when they know they have erred.  But it takes so much humility to want to stand in line outside a confessional box to wait our turn to confess our failures to a human being on the other side of the grille or curtain.  It is also humility to want to believe that the other person, weak and sinful though he may be as a human being, also is in persona Christior one who is in the person of Christ himself.  

Very often, it takes humility to accede to God’s will, particularly when doing God’s will means having our world somewhat falling apart right before our eyes.  When Jesus was nailed to that ignominious cross on Calvary, his whole world DID fall apart.  Yet, it was what saved us.  Not one bit of that was logical, but neither is love logical.  And it was love that saved us, and it was a great gift of love that was wrapped with a ribbon of humility.  

Such should be the gift of our lives as well.

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