For many years the nation of South Africa used a political system called apartheid, in which the ruling white minority brutally oppressed the black majority, denying their human dignity and severely restricting their freedom. Despite the strong disapproval of the rest of the world, most of the white citizens of South Africa considered themselves morally and culturally superior to people of other races, and refused to acknowledge them as equals. An American airliner was about to leave the city of Johannesburg on an overseas flight back to the United States, but one of the passengers—a middle-aged, white South African woman—angrily summoned the flight attendant and complained about being seated next to a black man; she insisted on her rights, and loudly demanded, “Find me another seat!” The flight attendant calmly explained that the flight was very full, but promised to see if there were any other seats available. While waiting for her, the woman haughtily ignored the black man seated next to her; he sat in painful but dignified silence, and the other nearby passengers looked uncomfortable and confused. A few minutes later the flight attendant returned and said, “Madam, as I suspected, the economy seats are full. However, we do have one empty seat in first class. It’s most extraordinary to make this type of upgrade, and I had to get special permission from the captain—but he agreed with me that it’s outrageous that someone of obvious superior moral quality be forced to sit next to such an obnoxious person.” The woman wore an expression of smug superiority and triumph, only to be shocked into silence when the flight attendant turned to the black man and continued, “So, sir, if you’d like to get your things, your seat is ready for you in first class”—causing the other nearby passengers to smile and applaud (Rev. John G. Hillier, Anecdotes & Scripture Notes, p. 30). It’s dangerous to consider ourselves superior to others. Not only do we risk a well-deserved humiliation, as happened to the South African woman; even worse, we close ourselves off to God’s grace. Only those who strive to be humble will be exalted in Heaven.
Pride is the worst of all sins, for it was the one which transformed Lucifer—the greatest and most beautiful of all the angels—into the irreversibly wicked and repulsive figure of Satan. Therefore, in a certain sense we might say that humility is the most important of all the virtues, for it’s absolutely essential if we wish to grow in holiness and grace. As the Book of Sirach says, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Humility will allow us to approach what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” dwelling with “countless angels in festal gathering” and “the spirits of the just made perfect.” Being humble helps us find the way to eternal life, and as Jesus explains in the Gospel of Luke, not only can choosing a lower seat at a banquet save us from embarrassment and instead gain us favorable recognition, but going beyond that and humbly doing a favor for those who have no way of repaying it—such as providing a meal for the poor—will do much to prepare us for Our Lord’s banquet feast in Heaven.
All the saints practiced humility—though some of them had to learn this lesson the hard way. A 4th century hermit known as St. John the Dwarf loftily told a fellow hermit that he was going deeper into the desert to “live like an angel,” intending to prove that because of his superior self-discipline and admirable commitment to prayer and penance, he was above such worldly considerations as food and shelter and clothing. However, a week later the second hermit heard a knock at his door and asked, “Who is it?” “It’s John,” replied the now-humbler saint. “Let me in.” His brother hermit, sensing an opportunity to make an important point, answered, “You can’t be John; he’s an angel now, not a man,” and made John wait outside until the following morning before giving him food and shelter. Moreover, in the 17th century the priest St. Vincent de Paul was once visited by a relative from the country, a poor young man lacking in education and social graces. At first Vincent was embarrassed, and had the porter secretly take the relative to his room, where he might meet with him in private. However, Vincent realized he had given into the sin of pride, so he apologized to his cousin, and took him to his brother priests and religious and introduced him as a valued family member.
In the 1930s St. Faustina Kowalska wrote, “If there is a truly happy soul upon earth, it can only be a truly humble soul,” and on a different occasion she observed, “Now I understand why there are so few saints: it is because so few souls are deeply humble.” The Blessed Virgin Mary later appeared to St. Faustina and said, “I desire, my dearly beloved daughter, that you practice the three virtues that are dearest to me, and most pleasing to God. The first is humilty; [the second is] humility; [and the third is] once again humility.” Jesus Himself spoke to the saint on one occasions and instructed her, “Write these words on a clean sheet of paper: ‘From today on, my own will does not exist,’ and then cross out the page. And on the other side write these words: ‘From today on, I do the will of God everywhere, always, and in everything.’”
Humility does indeed mean trying to do God’s will instead of our own; this is a way of acknowledging that His plan for our lives is far superior to our own hopes and desires. Humility also means recognizing and admitting that everything we have—especially our talents, our successes, and our admirable characteristics or personal strengths—is a gift from God, and that without Him, we can do nothing worthwhile. However, the sign that we’re truly humble isn’t how we relate to our Creator, but to our fellow creatures; few of us would dare to compare ourselves to God, but almost all of us are tempted at one time or another to consider ourselves superior to or more important than another human being. Jesus urges us to be on guard against this temptation, warning us that if we exalt ourselves, we will be humbled. We don’t have to deny our goodness or our infinite value as children of God; rather, we must acknowledge and rejoice in the goodness we see in other people, while remembering that they too were created for a destiny of eternal glory. The values and judgments of this world are almost always short-sighted, mistaken, and spiritually dangerous. We are called to live by a very different standard—one which respects the dignity of every other person, and which seeks to know and do the will of God at all times. Choosing to be humble in this sense will result in many unexpected blessings, bring us great spiritual peace, and allow us to be forever exalted in Heaven.