From Value to Virtue: Humility

by | Nov 17, 2016 | Formation, Reflections

To say #IamVincent means to live a life of virtue. Actually, it means to live a life of five essential virtues. The second is Humility: the virtue of nearness.


In view of our desire to promote love and respect toward the poor, the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul proposes the practice of humility which supposes accepting the truth about our frailties, gifts, talents, and charism, yet knowing that all that God gives us is for others and that we can achieve nothing of eternal value without his grace (Rule, #2.5.1).

The word, humility, (which comes from the Latin, humus [soil of the earth] and which indicates something “that is of little importance”) points out the virtue of those individuals who recognize their limitations as created beings and who furthermore accept their inability to attain salvation apart from God who freely bestows that gift upon them. The description that we find in the Rule highlights precisely that reality.

Humility is a virtue that is highly valued in the Old Testament: the humility of the human person corresponds to the greatness and the glory of God. The situation of the humble person is often described with words that refer to the poor (in both a spiritual and material sense of the word). Thus, we see a profound relationship developed between poverty and humility. Both virtues highlight the attitude of those who confidently and patiently surrender themselves to God in order to accomplish God’s will. Humility eventually becomes identified with a life of faith: Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger (Zephaniah 2:3).

The definitive witness of humility is found in the New Testament, in the person of Jesus Christ. In Saint Matthew’s gospel we find an invitation to imitate the Lord who is meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29). Saint Paul extols Christ’s humility in the hymn that is found in the letter to the Philippians (2:5-11). There Paul highlights Jesus’ self-emptying, his ability to set aside his divinity in order to take on the form of a servant and in order to humble himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross. In that movement in which Jesus lowered himself in order to be raised up, we find the true path of perfection and holiness. Therefore, the apostle invites us to have among [ourselves] the same attitude that is also [ours] in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). Indeed, we are unable move toward the encounter with God except by the very path by which Jesus descended to encounter us.

Vincent de Paul had a great esteem for this virtue and proposed the practice of this virtue to those persons who shared his charism. In Vincent’s thinking, humility implies that we recognize that everything comes from God; that it is not we who do good, but God working through us. This implies that we must empty ourselves and not seek the applause of the world. Furthermore, we do not minister in order to receive something in return; we choose the last places; we love the hidden life of the service and work and we believe that others are more worthy than ourselves.

Because all of this is very difficult, Vincent taught us that we must view Jesus Christ as the model of humility. Like the apostle Paul, Vincent understood that Jesus stripped himself of his divinity, went about doing good, led a hidden life, did not seek power or the applause of others, humbled himself, even to death on a cross … and Jesus did all of that while being the Son of God.

… virtues imply effort, sacrifice, self-control, discipline.

We begin to understand all of these concepts when we focus on the gospel or when we read the writings of our Founders. In today’s world, however, it is not always easy to understand such concepts. Technological and scientific developments have multiplied our possibilities and have likewise nourished our self-complacency. Today, human nature is viewed more positively and our awareness of our own dignity has been heightened. We proclaim the equality of all people and demand respect for the human rights of all men and women. All of this is very good but, it can also make us arrogant. Our understanding of sin has changed and we no longer view everything as evil, but rather more often than not we have become indifferent to the reality of sin. Thus, it has become more and more difficult to recognize short-comings, to identify defects and to give a name to sin. We justify all of this by having recourse to psychology, to the signs of the time, to society and to the environment in which we find ourselves. In this context, then, it is not easy to humbly accept one’s limitations nor is it easy to confront those limitations calmly and with courage.

At the same, our understanding of the virtues has also changed. Vincent constantly spoke about mortification, penance, humility, obedience, meekness, renunciation … virtues that imply effort, sacrifice, self-control, discipline. Today, none of this obtains a good reception and preference is given to self-esteem, aggressiveness, effectiveness, dynamism … and none of those are viewed from the perspective of humility.

Nonetheless, we highlight the fact that humility is the fundamental virtue that is found in the gospel. From the time of Jesus’ Incarnation and until his death on the cross, from the proclamation of Mary’s Magnificat until the feast of Pentecost, we find the consecration of humility and the exaltation of those who are humble. Vincent de Paul viewed humility as the center of the whole spiritual life. Humility enables people to accept their limitations and to seek the Lord as they attempt to overcome their defects. We might ask here, what does all of this mean for us as we attempt to practice this virtue of humility?

In accord with the Rule, we must recognize that we are created beings, the work of One who is Creator and Lord. Everything that we have is a gift from God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

We must recognize that we are dependent on others. We live in the midst of an interdependent and relational world. We need others and cannot live without them. We journey toward the Kingdom with others and that reality demands solidarity and humility.

We must recognize that we are sinners, that we are prejudiced, that we are lazy, that we are not as committed to the cause of justice as we should be, that we find it difficult to accompany those who are suffering, that we speak without thinking … and all of this is sinful and we must understand this in order to overcome and change such situations.

We must recognize our need for divine grace. Our gifts are grace; our multiple qualities are gifts; our charism is gift. Indeed, if we wish to be holy, then we need grace. Without that awareness, we become more arrogant and believe that we are self-sufficient.

Jesus invites us to draw closer to him if we want to find consolation and fulfillment … we are invited to draw closer to the One who is meek and humble of heart. Let us accept that invitation and imitate his humility as we follow in his footsteps.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM