As a boy, I spent much of my free time in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. My friends and I explored lush woods for hours at a time. We learned how to navigate miles from home by observing terrain and the natural environment.
I remember one day coming upon a tree that had been dead for years. Its weathered remains appeared jagged with decayed wood in the center. Our fingers sifted the soft brown matter that the oldest of us called “humus.” A tree once vibrant in color and stately in form slowly returned to the earth, from where it came — reduced to nothing, so it seemed.
The school of nature taught me many things, and I loved playing in the woods with my friends. But other lessons in life were not as fun to learn.
I went to a Catholic school for the first years of elementary education. Old-school nuns in starched habits taught us with ruler-enforced discipline. Their academic focus propelled us well ahead of our public-school peers. In sixth grade my father saw fit to send me to public school, and the transition wasn’t easy. So in order to compensate for my insecurity, I made sure everyone knew of my academic prowess.
One day, the sixth-grade teacher — observing that I thought I knew everything — called me aside and told me I had an attitude. I really didn’t understand what that meant, but I figured it wasn’t a good thing. So out of fear I kept quiet and tried to go about the business of being a 12-year-old student.
Many years later my knowledge of heaven and earth ballooned to epic proportions. I had a college degree. I owned a Bible and Catechism and was a Catholic who read apologetics. I once found myself arguing some point of morality with an educated theologian. I knew I was right, but my opponent just bristled at my confident rebuttals to his heterodox rambling. His face reddened as he said, “How can you know such things? You don’t even have a licentiate. Why, you’re nothing!”
I didn’t know what a licentiate was and immediately related the incident to my trusted confessor at that time. This former prison chaplain owned a Harley-Davidson but was rock-solid in his faith. He simply responded to my well-justified complaint: “Well, Darryl, you are nothing.”
At this point in my life, I still didn’t understand the concept of humility. Is it something characteristic of weak people? Or do I force it on myself by walking with downcast eyes accompanied with verbal flagellations? Where does it come from?
Humility is derived from the Latin word humilitas — a state of lowliness. It’s related to a sense of being grounded or of the earth — the “humus” of my childhood. The opposite is a state of being haughty or thinking oneself above everyone else. Humility is a human virtue related to the cardinal virtue of temperance, as it requires moderation of one’s self-opinion.
The concept is sometimes hard to grasp, but by accepting a state of being lowly, one is actually able to grow as a human being. For example, St. Paul struggled with his own propensity to become too “elated” and, through some painful circumstance in his life, eventually realized that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Humility is at odds with pride and requires honest self-knowledge. And most of us have a difficult time acknowledging that we have any faults at all, let alone fixing them. Some type of emotional or spiritual pain might be required. But without humility, growth is stunted, and we become overbearing.
As children, we have natural humility that enables us to learn, but we seem to lose it as adults. Our hearts can harden as the coarseness of life creates calluses on our fragile psyches, which are so afraid of being hurt again by disorders of the fallen world. Ugly pride then grows in the cracks of our souls, disfiguring their formerly pristine appearance.
But the removal of pesky pride is painful.
Knowing that to be the case, God chose to empathize with humanity by experiencing human discomfort and acting in the spirit of humility through the Incarnation. Perhaps the first pain was the Son’s physical separation from the Father. In order not to appear above the human race, Christ the God-man tempered his ego by becoming one with the human race.
Think about it: Christ had it made in heaven. The Father had created a universe by the Son and the Spirit that humans would only scratch the surface trying to understand. Countless angels were at God’s beck and call helping them to create all sorts of wonderful things.
But he came down to earth and allowed himself to be raised by a human father. It was a simple carpenter who taught Jesus how to fashion wooden furniture out of the trees of God’s creation.
And he went through all the phases of growing up, just like everyone else. While exploring the deserts of the ancient Middle East, if Christ acted like I did in sixth grade, he would have been quick to one-up his buddies with his knowledge of the cosmic forces that created sand.
But Jesus was a meek person who relished the virtue of humility. In doing so, he was admired by people because of his unassuming personality. Humility made him attractive, and he blossomed as a human being by being totally infused with this discreet but powerful virtue. Yet, in spite of this, the world’s pride caused him to be unappreciated, ridiculed and eventually crucified by his contemporaries.
Christ lived the spirit of humility to the end of his life. He didn’t call on legions of angels to save him, but chose embarrassment and pain instead. The result of that unglamorous death was extraordinary new life that changed the world forever.
And so, the seemingly dead tree that doesn’t appear to matter anymore, returns to the earth. From there, it is transformed and becomes the basis of new life — a new tree, even more spectacular than the first.
I’ve had many lessons in humility over the years, and I still haven’t gotten it right. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate is the importance of this virtue. And I’ve also come to realize that, in spite of my weaknesses and insignificance, I am greatly loved. In the eyes of God I am worth far more than anything else in the created world. And I’ve also discovered that the more humble I become, the more I am able to give and receive love.
So if you have a licentiate or are a well-respected apologist or otherwise orthodox Catholic churchgoer and find yourself rightly humbled by some unjust circumstance in life, consider yourself fortunate. Embrace the opportunity to grow because, as much as you think you know about something, someone always knows more than you.
And remember that, although it’s hard to take, for an ailing soul, humility is the best medicine.
Darryl Podunavac writes from Westchester County, New York.