In last week’s column, I shared some of my reflections for the retreat on humility that I gave last weekend.
I hope everyone at the event left with a much better understanding of what real humility is since there is so much misunderstanding. The biggest problem is that many people only think about it negatively, that it is about putting yourself down and thinking you’re no good.
Of course, some of the quotes from scripture that are used concerning humility just add to the problem. In his writing on the virtue of humility in his rule, St. Benedict uses some pretty harsh images.
One of these is from Psalm 72 where it says, “I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast before you.”
If we were to stop there, we would be pretty sad about our condition. Benedict is making the point that we are often quite far from the ideal image of God in which we were made.
Once we realize that we can indeed be quite dense in our understanding, Benedict has no intention of just dropping us there. One of the early monastic stories from the desert hermits is this one: “‘A brother asked Alonius, “What is humility?”
The hermit said, “To be lower than brute beasts and to know that they are not condemned.” In other words, it’s good to know we are often not much good, but it’s more important to know that God loves and forgives us anyway. Just after the part about being a brute beast, the psalm goes on to say: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honor.”
The second, even more controversial, quote in the rule is from Psalm 21: “But I am a worm and not human, the reproach of others and the outcast of the people.”
It doesn’t get much lower than that. So we spent some time wrestling with this at the retreat. Again, St. Benedict doesn’t intend to leave the reader at this low point, but to acknowledge that sometimes we have to hit bottom in our self-esteem to crawl back up again with confidence in God alone.
I brought it to the group’s attention that being a worm isn’t all bad either. If the root word of humility in Latin is the same as that for humus, we can appreciate that humus is not just any old dirt, but that which has been enriched and is fertile.
For that, worms are a big help. They break down the dead plant and animal matter so that it can be used to nourish the soil. They fertilize, loosen up the soil, and clean up dead things. Among the most lowly creatures in the food chain, they are essential to everything else.
We also can’t ignore that this psalm passage would in the New Testament be used in reference to the complete sacrifice in humility of Jesus Christ, “reproach and outcast of the people.”
One of the participants shared another observation.
He said that one way we use worms is as fish bait. He immediately thought of the disciples and the command of Jesus to fish for people. He said that if Jesus could use him to lure others to faith, he would be happy to be a worm.
If we understand how small we are in the grand scheme of things, then we should not be left wallowing in our sorrow and repentance.
In spite of it all, God can still love wholeheartedly even the least of us.