Three Kinds of Humility

Three Kinds of Humility
St. Ignatius, like many spiritual masters over the centuries, suggested that humility was a prerequisite for the spiritual life. In his Spiritual Exercises, he described three kinds of humility:

  • To humble myself to total obedience to God.
  • To be ready for honor or dishonor, poverty or wealth, or anything else for God.
  • To desire poverty, dishonor, and even be a fool for God, since Christ was.

The last of these, he said, was the most perfect, because it expressed a desire to be like Christ.

For many, this exhortation to abject humility can be both confusing and even dangerous, particularly since it can be misunderstood to mean that those who live in situations of injustice ought to just be content with the injustice in the name of humility. Both ancient and modern thinkers have suggested the exact opposite: that the good life is characterized by rejecting humility and embracing virtues with many different names: Aristotle’s “great-souled-ness” or the modern term “living large.” So why humility?

In 1640, Flemish Jesuits produced a volume commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Jesuits. An anonymous inscription in that volume offers us a tantalizing hint of what Ignatius sought to convey in exhorting his followers to humility:

Not to be constrained by the greatest thing, but to be contained in the smallest thing, is divine.

The Jesuit theologian Brian Daley suggests that this inscription is a clue to Ignatian humility. The faithful follower of Christ lives in a kind of tensed state between magnanimity (the Aristotelian virtue of having a great soul) and humble submission to the word of God through imitation of Christ. The Christian seeks great things for God’s greater glory—a phrase Ignatius used frequently—measured not by the usual metrics of popularity and prestige in the world, but rather by the love of the one who is “meek, and humble of heart.” The third degree of humility is the degree to which one is willing to live in the ugliest, most marginalized parts of our world in order to discover the great beauty there, and love with abandon.

Those who are poor in spirit, Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes, may already be a step ahead of those who live in comfort, since they do not need to let go of false desires. They need only express love where they live.

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Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


  1. I’ve met many people in my life that really have a strong sense of humility. The humility of not needing and always giving. They do it with such ease and beauty that I began to imitate some of their practices. This is good for me and the rest of the world. The goodness and true humility that others show us as a way to be in the presence of the Lord. It includes that giving without looking back. It includes understanding and loving the gifts God has given me and be willing at the same time to use them in service to others. It includes the true poverty of giving to those who don’t have enough food or clothing in away that encourages their gifts. My humility is a sense of detaching ourselves from things and making them available to others in need. On the morning news there was a CEO who decided that all his workers need to earn a higher wage. He took a cut in his pay and offered his workers a sustainable wage. He did it through the pandemic and now. The humility of not wanting or needing more for my life than is already present is an awesome gift to his employees and to all that heard the broadcast today.

  2. In my world, it is hard to separate poverty from shame. Shame because you didn’t work hard enough or because you didn’t manage your money well.
    Humility is something I want to connect with peace, and joy, and unselfish living.
    I am not catholic, and vows of poverty are difficult for me to understand. Poverty to me means poor health, poor nutrition, a constant struggle to survive.
    Perhaps this is in part because my family struggled in poverty when I was small, although there was eventual financial stability. And with my husband there have been times of living below the poverty line too.
    Somehow, I don’t see Jesus living in that kind of poverty. This is all a real puzzle for me.

    • Hi Sheila, Thankfully I have learned poverty to mean Simplicity. So in the context of Spirituality, Poverty means the humility to keep it simple, pure, uncluttered mind, focus of thought. It is a Spiritual Action. In the secular world, Social Poverty is as you said, is a measure of financial insecurity and a source of social measure of achievement. I have had to let go of the values I was bought up with, to learn a whole new world of Spiritual Values. I can only do this one day at a time, it’s hard! But i believe this to be ‘Being Reborn in Christ’.
      Thank you for you share, with Love Victoria

  3. When I was a kid, my understanding of “humility” was not to be a braggart. You know the loud mouth, full of himself, proud person who feels he’s on top of the world. So the opposite of that would be the “mild” and “meek.” In other words, to be “invisible” in a crowd.

    Now I understand what St. Ignatius meant when he spoke of humility, I should say, it is a very hard path to follow. To choose poverty over wealth, honor over dishonor, and even be a fool for Christ is really for those aiming to be saints! It is more than being “invisible!”

  4. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble oneself that even the dust could crush him/her. Only then, and not till then, will she/he have a glimpse of truth.

  5. Tim,
    As a devotee of Kaisan (small steps) when trying to make substantive (big) changes in one’s head and heart, your reflection today is is so very insightful.. Thank you for this small insight with profound implications for understanding true humility.


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