What do all major world religions have in common? One answer came from the late Joyce Foster, a Benedictine oblate who spent the last years of her very long life writing a book on the virtue of humility, and how humility is the one—and perhaps the only—virtue common to all major faith systems and ecclesial communities.

Admittedly, a book on humility turned out to be a very short book—and an unpublished one at that! Still, Mrs. Foster tracked and traced humility through various religions in search of a common spiritual quest—and wisdom.

The title for her manuscript (and this piece) was taken from a line in T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “Four Quartets” where he remarks: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

But let me say at the outset—as Mrs. Foster did in her book—this was not some “all-religions-are-really-the-same” project. Indeed, she begins her work with the assertion that the Catholic Church is the one true religion, and makes no apologies for that claim. She goes on to give many examples of humility in the patrimony of our Church, culminating in Cardinal Merry del Val’s “Litany of Humility”, which can be found in many Missals and is worth repeating in toto here:

O Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That others may be more esteemed than I, Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.
That others become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.
Jesus, grant me the peace to desire it.

So far, so good (at least for us Catholics). But what do the other major (and for that matter, minor) faith systems have to say about humility? Here’s a representative sampling:

Our Protestant brethren had this to say:

To be humble does not mean that we must debase ourselves by pointing to our inadequacies and emphasizing our unworthiness, though we surely are unworthy even if we are adequate to the task set before us. Instead as Lorg points out, ‘Humility is appropriate self-appraisal, seeing yourself as God sees you. Humility is adopting God’s perspective on who you are and what you are assigned to do. It is the attitude that emerges from the spiritual discipline of thinking about yourself as God thinks of you.’ –Don Kirkland

Pope Saint John Paul II called the Jewish people “Our Elder Brothers in the Faith”. Here’s their take on humility:

A Hasidic tale tells of a man who came to Zaddik with a complaint, ‘All my life,’ he said, ‘I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one should run away from fame, will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.’ The Zaddik replied; ‘The trouble is that while you do run away from fame you are looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.’ It is a paradox in the whole matter of humility that when a man knows his own worth he comes close to being a victim of pride and yet humility cannot mean that a man has to imagine that he is less worthy than he really is. Self-delusion is no virtue and is presumably to be as much avoided as any other delusion by the seeker after truth. ‘The last infirmity of great minds’ is not easily conquered. —Rabbi Robert Louis Jacobs

Regrettably, Mrs. Foster died before the manuscript could find a publisher willing to take a chance on such a humble, yet profound book. It is to her memory and her work with the Trappist monks at Our Lady of the Genesee Abbey that I dedicate this piece.