The word is “humus”. It is Latin and it signifies ‘earth’ and from it we get the words humble and humility. To be a person of humility therefore means to be a person who is close to the earth, one who is well-grounded, one who does not think too highly of himself or herself. It is to be “earthy” in the best sense of the term. To be a person of humility means to be someone who knows the truth of himself or herself.
The Catholic faith is an “earthy” faith, which is appropriate being that it is sacramental. Grace is not opposed to the “stuff” of the earth (grain ground up, the flow of water, the scent of oil, the wax of candles, the touch of hands in blessing, even ones very blood, sweat and tears). Grace does not stand in opposition to any of this – in fact, grace works through and transforms through these very “earthy” realities.
Over the past few years I have developed an interest in iconography even to the point of learning to write (paint) my own icons. I have learned much through this process and one thing that has shifted for me through all of this is my appreciation of the complexity of the human face. I look at people differently now due to the discipline of iconography. I have come to appreciate the number of colors and differing hues present in the face of the person I encounter. We tend to think, “Well, a person is one color or another…” and write it off at that but this is not necessarily so. The human face consists in an amazing variety of colors and hues – reds, yellows, differing shades and levels of brown and also green … in fact, an earthy shade of green. In every face, especially in the shaded areas, there is found a hue of green. This is why in iconography one of the base colors used for skin is an earthy green. I also wonder if it might be where we get the saying “green with envy”. (Maybe its God’s way of engineering within our very makeup a way of letting us know when we are getting ahead of ourselves and that we might do well to remember our roots. A spiritual mood ring, so to say.)
To be a person of humility is to know oneself. It is to realize that we are close to the earth and to realize that grace is not opposed to this but rather works within and through this truth. And that in humility itself can be found a place of encounter with grace.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14: 11) Jean Vanier has remarked that in this command Christ is not just giving his disciples an easy remedy to the temptation of pride – the ever-present temptation of seeking after the higher places – but in the command Christ is also directing our attention to a location, to a specific place of encounter with the Divine.
To seek the lowly place, to humble oneself is to go where the “lowly” are found. Those not deemed worthy of a seat of honor in the world’s banquet. Here are found the outcasts, the poor and little ones, the ones of little or no worth in the world’s eyes but the ones who are beloved of God. The ones who enjoy the companionship of God. To “humble oneself” therefore means to go to that place where God can be found – the place that is lowly, the place that is earthy. This place might be found in the exterior action of the disciple seeking the other, it might be found in the interior action of the disciple going to the lowly places of his or her own heart. Either way, God is encountered.
Humility is a virtue and it is also a place – a place of encounter between the self and God. It is where God is companion and we realize the truth of who we are – both earthy and graced.
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”