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Humility and Peace

by Fr. Nathaniel Drogin, O.Praem.


We were once taught by a retreat master that “humility is the inner peace of the priest.” It is worth thinking about that for a moment: Why or how do those two go together—humility and inner peace?

For one thing, if you are humble you will never become discouraged. Why? Because you already know that you are a sinner, and so if you fall, you immediately turn back to God without self-pity or self-hatred. That’s a very peaceful way to be: free of discouragement, self-pity, and self-hatred.

Another reason that humility and inner peace go together is that you will not be disturbed by the sins of others. As our retreat master also pointed out, the humble man continually has the attitude of Judah who said about Tamar, “Tamar was more righteous than Judah”; and St. Paul likewise taught that we can always, by comparing our own sins to the goodness of others, consider “others better than ourselves.” So humility frees us from the anxiety of ambition and comparing ourselves to others.

Humility can free you from the endless cycle of resentment, since you will not be disturbed by the slights and rudeness of others. Like St. Norbert, if someone spits in your face—which would be very rude indeed—if you are humble, you will not hate the man. You will not analyze in your mind over and over again how rude so-and-so is, and think, “How could he do that to me—to me?” Instead, like St. Norbert, you will choose to think on your own sins and forgive that person.

Humility frees us from fear of judgment and/or punishment, because it allows us to focus more on God’s goodness and mercy than on our own sinfulness. The humble man does not need to hide from God or from others. If I am truly humble, I could stand up here and confess publicly all of my sins. I won’t, but if I was humble I could, and not be afraid of judgment or punishment. In fact, each one of us will have to do that, in a manner of speaking, at the general judgment. Now the thought makes us cringe, but then, God willing when we are saved, it will make us praise God.

Humility gives us great courage in times of persecution, as it did for St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. Humility allowed St. Thomas More to accept suffering as medicine and stay focused on the fact that “our help is in God alone,” as he explains in his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.

I’m sure we could think of many other ways that humility and inner peace go together, but another fact that we ought to consider is that the wolf of pride often parades around in a sheepish disguise. If you find that you are often without inner peace, it could be that you are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now I say this, not to accuse you all of being proud, but because humility is the only virtue that “flees when it hears its own name.” Pride is so insidious that practically nothing we do is actually free of this disease; it’s probably possible to be proud even about being humble. As our holy father St. Augustine tells us, “Pride infects even good works in order to destroy them.”

I think that the only way for us to recognize true humility is to look at others, but especially to look at her who was conceived without sin, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was not a struggle for her to be humble. She did not have to convince herself of her lowliness. When others sinned against her, she did not have to fight that tendency to hate or condemn. For her humility was a totally different category, a totally different universe you could say. Not just a matter of thinking much or little of herself, not just a matter of thinking well or badly of herself, but of thinking of God in a totally different way than we ever could, and therefore humility was for her, thinking of herself in a totally different way than we could of ourselves.

You can understand better what I am trying to say if you compare the temptation to pride to any other temptation—say, for example, to eat a candy bar that you know would not be good for you. You really want to eat that candy bar but you know it will be bad for you, so you remind yourself of all the reasons why it would be unhealthy, and you convince yourself, “Okay, I won’t eat it. It will be bad for me.” But deep down you still really want to eat that candy bar. It’s the same with pride. If you are tempted to put others down or resent them, you remind yourself of their dignity as a son or daughter of God. You convince yourself that your good qualities or their bad qualities do not make you better (because everything you have you have received), and so you convince yourself not to look down, not to resent. But deep down you still really want to. It’s a struggle, but for Mary there was no struggle. Her gaze was constantly fixed on God, and she saw everything else in light of Him. Humility was not a matter of comparing or not comparing herself to others, but rather of comparing herself to God and of seeing everything in light of that.

We could summarize these two different kinds of humility—our humility and Mary’s humility—in terms of the “confession of sin” and the “confession of praise.” For us, humility in this life is both confession of praise and confession of sin, but it’s mostly confession of sin. For Mary, and for all the saints in heaven, humility is purely confession of praise.

So if you realize that you are not like Mary, then you are on the path of humility. What should you do? Simply let the fact that you are not like Mary humble you. Let your sins humble you. Let your pride humble you, until the day when, God willing, with all the saints in heaven, the confession of sin becomes the confession of praise, forever and ever. Amen.

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