To the question “how do you eat an elephant?” a wise man answered “one bite at a time.” In some way, the sage’s response reflects the idea for which Vincent insisted so much on the virtues to be acquired in view of the life choices we have made (the sanctity of life) and the mission to be accomplished in honor and dignity of the called ones.
If we think about it and have the courage and wisdom to review the entire journey of our life, our behaviors and our decisions, we understand right away that we have not respected many decisions and many good intentions since the day of the exercises done before our consecration, ordination… including those we take after every annual or monthly spiritual exercises. Why is that? In my opinion, we lack personal discipline. We are not diligent and we lack continuity in personal discipline, which is very important. Today’s world seems obsessed with fitness! Yet, even in fitness, the important thing, experts say, is discipline.
Continuity in the exercises to do, in nutrition, and in daily lifestyle. Discipline, therefore. Christian and Vincentian virtues are important in disciplining us in a Christian manner. The ultimate aim of Christian and Vincentian virtues is “imitatio Christi” and nothing else.
Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians 2,5-8: “Have in you the same feelings that were in Christ Jesus, who, though he was of a divine nature, did not consider his equality with God a jealous treasure; but he stripped himself, assuming the condition of a servant and becoming like men…”. The theme of the imitation of Christ leads to the heart of Jesus, a heart to imitate and follow: “learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11,29). If we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, then we must have the same feelings, the same life goal, the same passion for God and for His Kingdom. Christian and Vincentian virtues help us to tame the elephant that is in us (pride and vanity; the worldly spirit, etc.) and to submit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ in our life and in our ministry. It’s not important what ministry we do, but rather how we do it.
Whoever eats an orange carries the scent of the orange, whoever drinks coffee carries the scent of coffee, whoever continuously trains with virtues carries the scent of grace, Jesus Christ. The reflection on virtues is important for this very reason, because the more we reflect on them, the more we carry the scent of sanctifying grace. Now let’s move on to the reflection on each virtue. We start with the mother, namely the source of all virtues, as Vincent says: humility. “Here lies the basis of evangelical perfection and the pivot of all spiritual life. Whoever has this virtue will easily obtain all the others; but those who do not have it will be devoid of even those that they seem to have”.
Humility is the antithesis of pride: in Saint Vincent’s thinking, the virtue of humility is the foundation of all virtues: if this is lacking, all the others collapse. Let us not delude ourselves, he said, “if we do not have humility, we do not have anything”. For Christ and for us Christians, humility means an inner disposition like that of Christ. This inner disposition is in stark contrast to pride, self-sufficiency, vanity. It is the virtue that gives a consciousness of what we are before God: fragile, weak, inconsistent (sometimes even contradictory) creatures. Whoever is humble is also likable. In the scriptures, we have a testimony of a humble person: Moses. “Moses was a humble person, the most humble there was on earth” (Nm 12,1-13). Generally, regardless of the profession of faith, humanity does not love the proud and vain, but the humble.
Humility is not just an attitude, but it is primarily a way of being and of relating to God in the light of His truth and love. Humility is therefore not self-harm, not a sense of inferiority, nor much less incapacity or infantilism, but is rather a placing of one’s life into the hands of God by trustingly abandoning oneself to Him as Moses, Mary, and Jesus did, to name a few. Humility, thus conceived, unites people, while pride, self-sufficiency, and vanity divide.
Humility rejoices in the Lordship of God: Humility is the virtue that makes us feel God as the only Lord of our life, thus removing us from an attitude of self-sufficiency which is a form of idolatry. The humble person, in fact, has no pretensions, does not trust his own judgment, but leans on God and recognizes that he has received everything from God: all that he is and that he has. St. Paul reminds us of this: “What do you have that you did not receive; and if you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4,7). Proud people are the biggest liars of all, said an author, because they boast of things that do not belong to them: beauty, intelligence, various abilities… of which they boast and brag but that they have not bought. This is why they are liars. Humble people, on the other hand, admit to having received everything from God and say: “We are useless servants, we have done what we had to do” (Lc 17,7ss).
It is not out of false humility that they say they are useless servants, but they admit to being sinners, and if they have managed to do something, it was God who did it through them. The humble recognize the active presence of God in their lives. This was the humility of Mary of Nazareth. The humble person, like Mary, agrees to be emptied, or rather, as Saint Vincent said: “empty yourself of yourself and God will fill with Himself”. Emptiness is the condition to make room for God, attracting and activating “an immeasurable amount of grace and graces”. Humility is not the space of emptiness, but it is the space of God who frees us from ourselves and opens us to union with Him. The humble person is a joyful person and is esteemed by others.
Humility recognizes the dignity of the human person: the virtue of evangelical humility, especially for those who live a community life, helps to avoid two extremes: on one hand an idolatrous exaltation of others and on the other, a devaluation or disrespect of others. The virtue of evangelical humility is oriented towards a free and liberating service of charity towards others, without hypocrisy, falsehood, and in truth. Evangelical humility is based on two pillars: truth and charity.
If it is based and practiced in this way, it is expressed as a way of freedom, with the utmost respect for others, without exalting anyone and without discrediting or devaluing anyone else. Furthermore, the humble is not only respectful of the dignity of others, but also has the fear of God and a sense of God’s mercy. Mercy towards oneself and towards others expressed and lived in balance. Respect for oneself and others requires true humility as an expression of balance and human maturity.
Humility helps us to moderate our pride, our vanity and our presumption: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…” as Paul says (Rm 12). Those who recognize God’s gifts in them do not use them as a cause for boasting, but attribute everything good in us to Him and Him alone. Humility has, in this respect, the function of moderating pride, both as excessive self-esteem, and also as dependence on the esteem of others. Furthermore, the ability to accept the diversity present in others recognizing their dignity, even in sin and error that disturb human relationships. The humble person accepts and also overcomes the humiliations and offenses received and manages to overcome them without any kind of revenge.
Humility is a virtue that makes us joyful in life and fruitful in ministry: I conclude this short and incomplete reflection by quoting the great St. Augustine, “pride transformed an angel into a devil, and humility raised simple people into angels”. It is true because the devil is an angel fallen from his throne while Mary and other biblical figures are people like us, but who have accepted the Lordship of God in their lives and have collaborated with the graces received to the point of saying: for me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1,21). This humility not only makes us serene and content in life despite all the difficulties and adversities of this world, but also and above all makes us effective in ministry precisely because people love humble and meek people.
P. Zeracristos Yosief, C.M.