Humility is the basis of the spiritual life Print
Bishop Hying's Column
Thursday, Nov. 07, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Bishop Donald J. Hying's column

“Though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that He humbled Himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross!”

Paul quotes these lines of the Kenotic Hymn in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, citing Christ’s example of humility as a model for the community to emulate.

Two leaders of the Christian community in Philippi were fighting with each other, causing dissension and conflict, so Paul, from his prison cell, seeks to heal the division. The Kenotic Hymn is probably the earliest Scriptural articulation of the Paschal Mystery, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word “kenosis” means “self-emptying,” a pouring out, a radical gift of self.

Basis of the spiritual life

I reflect often on humility, because it is truly the basis of the spiritual life; without it, we cannot progress in our relationship with God or grow in Christian virtue. The etymology of humility is “humus,” from the Latin, meaning “earth.” When we stay rooted in our littleness and fly close to the ground, we won’t have so far to fall when we sin and fail.

Humility is the balance of realizing both our greatness and our poverty. We human beings are far grander and more significant than we dare imagine! We are made in the image and likeness of God, possessing an eternal destiny. We learn, love, serve, and believe. The Lord has endowed us with every gift we need to soar to spiritual heights. If we forget our greatness, we fall into a dark despair.

On the other hand, we know limits and poverty. Without God, we are literally nothing and fall into non-existence. We are weak, prone to sin, suffering, illness, and death. We make mistakes, falling and failing. If we forget our poverty, we fall into a complacent pride.

The humility of Jesus Christ

When I meditate on the Sacred Heart, I ponder the humility of Jesus Christ. The Son of God, dwelling in unapproachable light and ineffable divinity, humbled Himself, emptied Himself out to become human. God becomes one of His own creatures, subject to every limitation and pain known to humanity with the exception of sin.

Jesus touches corpses, eats with sinners, embraces the leprous; he befriends tax collectors and prostitutes, all actions that no self-respecting Jew of His day would ever imagine doing.

He washes the feet of the Apostles, doing the work of a slave. He surrenders Himself in the tender vulnerability of the Eucharist and dies ignominiously, condemned as a blaspheming criminal, naked and tortured on a cross.

How could God ever be humbler than that? To what extreme of greater kenosis could God have gone? The humility of Christ should break our hearts open! We are well on our way to conversion when we realize that God is humbler than us.

Age of self-absorption

We live in an age of remarkable self-absorption. Social media can serve very noble purposes, but often, posted selfies and Facebook dramas reveal a deep narcissism embedded in our cultural values. Comfort, entertainment, ease, and possessions can become ends in themselves, rather than serve as needed respites of ease and tranquility.

The unredeemed self is trapped in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by images and projections of ego needs, anxious insecurities, and illusions of grandiosity. Saint Augustine said that the false self is turned in on itself, unable to truly receive, love, and give. Think of an ingrown toenail. The humility of Christ sets us free from all of that, thank God!

If we dare to spiritually dwell in the abyss of the Sacred Heart of Christ, the purifying fire of His love will burn away all the false trappings, futile desires, deceiving masks, and dark despair of the false self. If we plunge into the radical humility of Christ, grounded in the grace of the sacraments, losing ourselves in meditative prayer, unconditionally loving and serving those around us, gradually everything within us that is not of God will disappear and dissolve.

All that will be left in the end is the beautiful person that God called us to be in the first place. Our false self resists this death of the unredeemed ego with all its might, so no wonder that the spiritual life often feels like a battle between grace and sin, humility and pride, hope and despair.

In our struggles, we draw strength and inspiration from the example of Jesus, tempted in the wilderness, tempted to use His divine powers for His own needs, tempted to aggrandize Himself at the expense of the Father’s mission.

In humility, He resists all of that, staying true to the course of self-emptying love which fuels His mercy, healing, forgiving, serving, obeying, praying, dying, and rising.