“Humility” is rooted in the Latin word, “humus”, in earth, soil, and ground. Although occasions of humiliation can lead to feeling ashamed, perhaps it is more helpful to reframe those experiences as opportunities to cultivate the virtue of humility. Tending to the roots of our being, we become grounded in the source of who and whose we are, a beloved child of God, growing confidence in who we were created and called to be.
In the beginning of Chapter VII, The Autobiography of St. Ignatius, St. Ignatius recalls:
He left for Paris on foot and alone, and, according to his own reckoning, arrived there toward the beginning of February, 1528. … At Paris he lived with some Spaniards, and attended the lectures given at the College of Montaigu. As he had been advanced too rapidly to the higher studies, he returned to those of a lower grade, because he felt that in great part he lacked the proper groundwork. He therefore studied in a class with children.
This back-to-school moment was not the first time that the pilgrim (as St. Ignatius referred to himself) needed humility. Six and a half years after being hit by a cannonball at Pamplona, he was well into his journey toward “the great things he would do for the greater glory of God.” (cf. Chapter II) Grounded in his call St. Ignatius’ desire to serve God never waned despite many detours, health crises, false starts, insufficient education, the Inquisition, and imprisonment. He felt that probation restrictions placed on him after prison were “preventing him from helping his neighbor” (cf. Chapter VI), prompting pursuit of additional studies.
I’ve started over more than once in the pilgrimage of my own life. A mid-career transition from process development to consumer research required learning how to listen to people’s experiences and translate them into design criteria to guide product development. My move into ministry drew on project management and communications skills developed at Procter & Gamble. I also discovered some corporate habits that no longer served me well.
Faced with limited ministerial resources (time, people, money), I had to grapple with what reasonable expectations were for myself and coworkers. I learned through practice that Ignatian “magis” doesn’t mean doing more activities, rather, how to choose between good options for the “greater good” of our mission. I was learning to discern what was more grounded in God.
Those familiar with Jesuit pedagogy know that “Open to Growth” is listed as the first among five qualities educators strive to impart to students, cultivating a joy and capacity for lifelong learning. Whether engineer or minister, others have encouraged me to learn new things, especially when working at the limits of my competence compared to a project’s needs. Sometimes it’s just a simple spark of curiosity that moves me to pursue a new interest.
A growing edge is learning to let go of a sense of responsibility to care for everything that comes my way. The greater glory of God is generally not best served by running myself ragged – “the glory of God is a human person fully alive!” (St. Irenaeus, bishop and theologian c.185 AD). As a capable woman able to juggle priorities, I sometimes fall into the “I can handle it” trap. Predictably, I become frustrated with others and angry with myself for overcommitting.
Part of cultivating humility is to become re-grounded in who I am, with all my gifts, strengths and limitations, prayerfully asking, are all these activities mine to do, consistent with the call I am living into at this time, or are others better suited? When clear that the tasks are mine, a follow-up question is, am I equipped to do them well, or would additional training be helpful? Focused on the mission, taking on “beginner’s mind” as our Zen Buddhist friends might recommend is not an issue. Freed from ego worries, I am eager and available for learning.
As you reflect on your own life, where might God be inviting you to cultivate the virtue of humility? What helps you become re-grounded, strengthening your roots that will support producing more good fruit? Further education is only one source of enrichment. Turning over your compost pile of life experiences can also release rich insights for growth.
Lately I’ve been contemplating: just because I would enjoy the work being offered, and I would do it well, do I have sufficient understanding of local culture, norms and expectations? Additional education might not be the answer. Is there a community member to partner with? Or even better, might I step aside and encourage someone else, taking delight in the glory of God lighting up another person!
- In his article, The Magnanimity and Humility of St. Ignatius Loyola, P. Bracy Bersnak observes that” humility, far from being opposed to magnanimity (doing great deeds and seeking great honors), serves to temper it, because humility makes us recognize the great gifts that God has given to others.”
- Pray with Sr. Joyce Rupp, O.S.M. as she reflects: “Each autumn I now seek inspiration from those dying leaves gathering in ever deeper layers on the ground. As the trees let go of what enabled them to sip of the nourishing rays of summer sun, their falling leaves will eventually become a rich humus to nourish spring’s greening growth. If I stay open to the inner and outer changes that naturally arise … my life can be a nourishing source for personal and world transformation. I hope the same for you.”
Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash