This Lent, I have been reflecting and praying about humility. As a concept, humility is simple: thinking that no one else is any better or worse than I am. It opens me to look for ways to find the good in others, rather than seeking respect, love, or attention for myself.
In practice, I find humility much harder to live and a matter well-worth giving my attention to this Lent. Just in the last 24 hours, I can think of many times that I wanted attention or appreciation expressed towards me, such as after I cooked a meal and served it to my family or after I offered encouragement and support to a loved one facing a medical problem. While I believe that I acted in these ways out of love, and not with the aim of appreciation, the reality is, I can really want that appreciation too.
Naturally, we all want to matter. I want my teaching to be meaningful to my students and for my writing to be helpful to my readers. I hope that my family finds my advice and encouragement matters. I would like to be a good cook, because I love making and enjoying good food and sharing it with others. St. Ignatius clearly believed it was good to use our gifts and talents for the good of our community and to reflect on our lives to find God in them—that is, to find meaning. All these are good and healthy desires.
But in the Principle and Foundation, Ignatius lists honor and dishonor as matters about which we also need to have a degree of indifference. Ignatius led the life of a soldier for a while, so perhaps that word honor had a particular kind of resonance for him. For me, honor is not the most helpful term to get at Ignatius’s meaning. Other more helpful terms might be being liked, appreciated, needed, or loved. All these kinds of motives can limit my internal freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a people-pleaser who only acts in ways that others will like. Far from it! But I have recently recognized that I, like many people, can sometimes care more than I ought to about how others respond to what I want to give.
When Ignatius asks us to seek indifference, he surely does not mean that we never feel hurt if a friend we love says something unkind, and he surely does not ask that we be so stoic as to never need love from others. We are human, so we all need friends, community, and connection. We all really do need love. But we are also called to become more like Jesus, that is, humble, and less attached to appreciation, attention, or honor.
In Scripture, Jesus does not draw attention to himself. He heals people, and many of those he heals want to tell others all about it. But he tells them not to tell anyone. Jesus is surrounded by crowds, but he often goes off to pray by himself. When there is a storm at sea, Jesus is asleep in the boat, at rest in the midst of turmoil. Taking a nap during a storm is not very attention-getting. Jesus has a quieter kind of presence: warm, kind, and loving out of the pure joy of simply being with others.
Ignatius tells us in his meditation on three kinds of humility that we can even seek the grace of desiring persecution. I don’t think it’s because Ignatius wants us to want to be martyrs. Seeking persecution would be its own kind of attention-seeking. Why then does Ignatius say this?
I am sure I have not yet grasped the depths of what Ignatius meant and what Jesus lived. But I do believe that when we are grounded in friendship with Jesus or life in the Spirit, we are freer to love. We are freer to be present to others, with no expectations. Love and grace are freely given and freely received, but not expected. There is a deeper abiding in the presence of Love itself that comes with humility.
This Lent, I will be paying attention to ways that I can practice a simpler kind of presence and availability to others, with fewer wishes or expectations of what appreciation I get in return. I hope to listen more and talk less. I hope to point out ways that others have gifts. I hope to worry less about what I am doing, so that I can be open to noticing where God is at work.
How do you try to make humility a practice?