During the last several months, I have felt a distinct and powerful calling to obtain and embrace a certain virtue. It has led me to daily reciting a certain prayer to the point of writing it on my heart. I have found it one of the most difficult prayer devotions I ever have attempted.
The Litany of Humility.
Here’s a look at some descriptions of “humility:”
- Dictionary definition: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.”
- St. Bernard of Clairvoix: “A virtue by which a man, knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”
- St. Thomas of Aquinas: “The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.”
Looking at humility from those perspectives, it’s more probable that persons can humiliate themselves more effectively than be humiliated by someone else. And believe me, once you think about what it means to be humbled by oneself, you begin to understand with greater clarity and depth what that actually would look like. The Litany drives that home.
The Book of Proverbs says that disgrace follows pride but humility brings wisdom. So humility is the flip side of pride, which has been called the “sin most hated by God,” perhaps the root of all sin.
St. Augustine called pride “‘the love of one’s own excellence.” Some would actually consider that a virtue and not a vice. To be sure, pride tends to feel more natural, more comfortable, more easily realized. We can like the way pride feels. Humility? Not so much.
Consider the first line of the Litany: “Oh Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, Hear me.”
Jesus taught the pursuit of humility as an essential part of following him. He said to welcome little children, that the least among us is the greatest, that whoever wants to be first must actually be the last, the servant of all. “Learn from me,” Jesus said, “for I am gentle and humble in heart.”
I often receive compliments from people who hear my wife, Donna, and I speak about our experience with mental illness. I receive words which can be taken as praise for things I write. Those things make me feel we are doing something right, fulfilling a divine calling to help others move a few inches closer to happiness or at least understanding they aren’t alone.
Yet as good as it can feel, I don’t really want the compliments or praise. I say thank you for the kindness and encouragement, but any strength and guidance comes from our God. I am not special.
And so I pray the Litany of Humility every evening. I know I need to seek and, indeed, pursue that virtue first and foremost. When I realize what that entails, though, I wake up and wonder …
Do I really want to gain humility?
The first section of the Litany involves asking Jesus to deliver from me from eight desires, including being loved, being honored, being praised, being preferred to others. Forgive me, Lord, but I like being loved and praised and preferred. That feels good, affirming, provides a bit of warmth in the heart and spring in the step.
Recently I asked that my name be tossed into the hat for a job that probably would have meant playing an important role in the lives of people, increasing my income dramatically, working more total hours but more flexible hours. I had to summon the courage to even consider it, though, because it would have meant leaving a steady, dependable income and risking failure.
In praying about it, I asked God to send a clear message: If he wanted me go in that direction, then give me the job offer; if not, then leave me where I am. But I talked myself into wanting the job. I wanted to be approved, honored, extolled. I wanted to be preferred to others.
Someone else got the job. Despite my prayers and my desire for humility, I was disappointed.
The last of the Litany’s three sections involves asking Jesus to grant me the grace to desire certain things, including others being loved more than I, that others may be chosen and I set aside, that others may be preferred to me in everything. As I pray those words, I hear a voice in my mind – a voice of pride – considering all the things in which I have talents. I have put a lot of my heart into developing certain abilities and have always thought my motivations are purely unselfish.
And yet, I want people to read my book before reading other books about depression. I want people to read my blogs and find inspiration and comfort. I desire to get jobs that I want or freelance assignments instead of another writer. I want people to invite me onto their radio shows. I want people to get help, but I want that help to come from me.
The middle section of the Litany involves asking Jesus to deliver from me from eight fears, including being humiliated and wronged. But the most difficult line of the entire Litany, for me, is this:
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
I have that fear. Every day. All day. One of my greatest fears in life is that I would be forgotten – by my kids, by people who have been friends for a long time and still are even though we don’t see each other regularly. Or by women I dated way back when. When we stopped dating and said we still wanted to be friends, I took that seriously and still do. By people I worked with in previous jobs, especially those with whom I spent a lot of time during 18 years as a sportswriter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
I want people who have read my writing or heard me speak to remember me and return to read more. When a friend or family member finds themselves in trouble or needs someone to listen, I want them to call on me.
I wonder if people to whom I once was important still think of me at all. I want to be missed.
Dear Jesus, I’m not sure I want to be delivered from that fear. I know it’s prideful. I know it’s selfish. I understand that if I truly feel called to humility, I need to release that fear.
And so I listen to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And I pray for that humble heart. But it sure doesn’t seem easy.