Many years ago, I took a part-time job as a hostess at a nearby restaurant. My boss, the restaurant owner, was an unpleasant person who frightened his employees with frequent bouts of anger. I’ll never forget the time when, as I was cleaning the front desk during pre-shift hours, he came nearby and began adjusting the music level in the dining room. He turned the music up way too loud, and then turned to me and asked something. I could not hear him above the music, and so I asked if he could repeat what he said. He rolled his eyes, and then turned to the other workers nearby, gestured in my direction, and said loudly, “What’s wrong with this one? She’s stupid?”
Humility just doesn’t feel good. No wonder it’s a virtue with a bad reputation.
I had a college professor who used to like to say, “Let me tell you what the meek shall inherit…The meek shall inherit the dirt!” He was being funny, but I could relate to that idea a lot more readily than I could relate to what Jesus teaches about the virtue of humility. That those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).
The world doesn’t seem to work that way. We live in a world where those who exalt themselves are, in fact, exalted. So often, the good guys get trampled and the bad guys seem to win. But Jesus tells us that His kingdom is not of this world and that our ways are not His ways. It’s hard to see that clearly from this side of heaven.
Some of the most inspiring stories from the lives of the saints, though, are the ones that underscore the value of humility, and the ways that God can be glorified by the great works He accomplishes in those who trust him, despite what the world might think of their ability or worth. In school, St. Thomas Aquinas was nicknamed “Dumb Ox” because he was a large man who moved slowly and seldom spoke, and yet we now know him as a brilliant Doctor of the Church.
St. Charles Borromeo, whose feast day we celebrate on November 4, was born into a wealthy family and had access to privilege and luxury from the very beginning of his life. But he renounced all these things as soon as he was able, donating his riches to the poor. He, too, had been dismissed in his younger years as unintelligent because he suffered from a speech impediment, and yet he went on to found seminaries for the education of priests, became a leader in the Counter-Reformation, and was a major figure in the Council of Trent.
It seems humility is key. God can work miracles with anyone and anything. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton knew this. She once wrote, “It is in the humble, poor, and helpless He delights to number His greatest mercies so that He may set them as marks to encourage poor sinners.”
Mother Seton suffered through illness and poverty, and it was in embracing her humble circumstances that she went on to accomplish such exceptional things in the Church — yes, even in the eyes of the world. She founded schools, and helped inspire Catholic education as we know it in America today. She founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first American congregation of women religious. With her example of diligence and humility, she ceaselessly inspired those around her toward greater love and greater virtue.
But humility came first.
Have you ever prayed the Litany of Humility? Many people have difficulty with this challenging prayer, and for many years I did, too. Last year, though, I committed to praying this prayer every day for the entire year, and that exercise helped me to understand something.
It is human to want to be admired by others. The downfall happens when we place disordered importance on others’ approval, when we worry more about what our fellow human beings think than what God thinks, and when we reject God rather than risk being rejected ourselves.
In the Litany of Humility, we pray to be delivered from the desire to be admired, to be approved, and to be praised by others. We pray to be delivered from the fear of being hated, humiliated, and rejected. So that we might embrace God’s ways instead.
And that is the challenge that Jesus speaks to our hearts today: Will you value my ways over the world’s ways? Will you choose me first? Will you love me most? Even when it does not make sense from any worldly perspective? Will you embrace humility?
Today, let us pray that the courageous examples of St. Charles Borromeo and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton will give us the confidence we need to answer yes. May we step out in faith and embrace whatever humble way God has planned for us. St. Charles and St. Elizabeth Ann, pray for us!
DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
Image: Saint Charles Borromeo Handing out Alms to the People by José Salomé Pina
This reflection was originally published in 2020. Click here to read all the Seton Reflections.