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Humility, happiness and St. Teresa of Avila

In 2014, I traveled with a group to Rome for the Canonization of St. John Paul II. One day during the pilgrimage, a Cardinal celebrated Mass for our group. I don’t remember which one, but I do remember thinking that he may be familiar with my work, and wondering if he would recognize me. Which then led to a spirited internal monologue about my humility (or the lack thereof) and why recognition was important to me. Given that the whole thing happened in church, I took it as a reminder from God that perhaps being recognized should not be uppermost in my thoughts when I’m preparing for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Or perhaps ever.

And then, after the close of Mass, another pilgrim approached me. He looked at my name tag and his face lit up. I saw it as a little reward from God, telling me that yes, it’s still okay for an aging speaker to enjoy being recognized every once in a while.

And then he spoke. “You’re from Lakewood, Colorado? My uncle lives in Lakewood!”

Nice one, God.

I’ve been taking a fabulous year-long class on prayer, and along the way, working to deepen my own relationship with God. To that end, I have been diving into the works of one of my favorite saints, Teresa of Avila.

There is so much I love about Teresa. She was holy, she was an astute “business woman,” and she accomplished great things despite ill health. And, oh yeah, she was hilarious. (She once told God “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”)

What has been striking me in this particular round of Teresa study is her insistence on the absolute necessity of humility in order to grow in the spiritual life. “There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world.”

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In other words, if we aren’t humble, we aren’t going to come close to God. And, since the entire point of life (according to the Baltimore Catechism) is to “know, love and serve God,” and since Heaven will consist of intimacy with him, it seems that growth in humility should be Job Number One for the Christian.

So how do we do that? Start telling ourselves how horrible we are? Start telling other people how horrible we are? Deny that we have gifts? Deny that our gifts have value?

No. Humility is not what so many of us think it is. C.S. Lewis put it beautifully when he said “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It is thinking of ourselves less.” It does not mean that we deny who we are, deny what we have or refuse to recognize value where value exists.

Humility means recognizing reality. And the reality of our lives is that we all have gifts. And all — I mean all — of those gifts come from God. If I’m good at something, it’s because God gave me the aptitude. If I worked to hone whatever skills I have, it’s because God gave me the opportunity to do so. It’s all from God. So the appropriate response is gratitude, and a commitment to use the gifts we’ve been given in the service of others. (“Thinking of ourselves less.”)

And the rest of our reality is that we are not the only ones who have received gifts. God has gifted us all, in the exact ways he knows we, and the world around us, need. So there are no gifts that are “better” than others, and hence no reason to look down our noses at others with an attitude that we we are somehow more gifted than they are — or to look “up” at them with envy because we haven’t received the same gift. If we have received great gifts from God, we should probably be shaking in our boots just a little, for “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected” (Lk 12:48).

The opposite of humility is pride, the “mother of all sins.” Why is pride such a big deal? Because an excessive belief in our own abilities obscures our ability to recognize our dependence on God, and our understanding of our need for his grace. If we don’t get that everything comes from him and that we need him for everything, we don’t turn to him. We don’t receive grace. We don’t grow in his love. Since we ultimately cannot save ourselves, we cannot be saved without recognizing our need for him. And he won’t save us against our will.

Thus the need for humility, the need to understand our profound reliance on God, and humble gratitude for all he has given us.

The thing is, pride is not going to make me — or anyone — happy. Let’s take my little example. In real life, as nice as a little recognition is, the sun in my world doesn’t rise and set on it. But what if it did? What if I believed that it is my work that gives me value as a human being — that I am fabulous because and only because I have these gifts, which I brought about all by myself, and which somehow make me superior to those around me? Then yeah, I’m going to need those constant reminders that I’ve still “got it,” or my very sense of self is going to wither away.

This is not a recipe for happiness.

Humility, on the other hand, really does lead to peace. I don’t have to worry if people acknowledge my wonderfulness. My wonderfulness doesn’t matter. The God who created me, and who gave me anything wonderful — he loves me. That’s all I need to know. I don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. Other people’s gifts are their own business. I can forget about it and “think about myself less,” focusing my energies on using whatever gifts I’ve been given in the service of God and my fellow man.  St. Teresa said, “Humility, however deep it be, neither disquiets nor troubles nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy and tranquillity.”

In this life and the next, isn’t that what we really want?

Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love and relationships across the United States and internationally for . . .well . . . her entire adult life. She was among the first Catholic speakers to introduce audiences to St. John Paul II’s beautiful Theology of the Body. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting respect for God’s gift of human sexuality. Her book Real Love, based on the Theology of the Body, has been translated into ten languages. She is also the author of We’re on a Mission from God, writes a monthly column for Catholic newspapers and contributes regularly to the Catholic Match Institute blog.

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