The best men are ever the most humble.”
– Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
According to ancient Greek mythology, there lived a mythical giant named Antaeus, son of Poseidon and the earth goddess Gaea, who lived in the territory of Lybia. The belligerent demigod ferociously defended his territory, challenging every pilgrim who passed his way to a wrestling match. The cost of losing was always death.
While journeying toward his 11th Labor, the Garden of Hesperides, Heracles encountered the giant and found him, as those before, impossible to overcome. The giant’s super strength seemed only to grow when a competitor gained the upper hand, throwing him to the ground to pin him. Each moment he seemed to have the giant subdued, he regained his strength and came at him with even greater might. In the midst of the divine battle, and Heracles increasing exhaustion, he noticed a relationship between the giant’s strength and his connection between his mother, the earth. Every time he lifted Antaeus in the air, the giant’s body grew weak and easy to dominate. It was then that Heracles knew the key to overcoming the seemingly invincible contender. He lifted the Antaeus into the air, and despite his struggles, crushed him in a bearhug, and continued along his way ((Fr. Alphonsus Rodrigues, SJ first used this myth to explain the virtue of humility in his book, “The Practice of Perfection of Christian Virtues” in 1609.)).
This myth may seem a strange place to start a conversation about humility. At first glance, nothing about this episode from Greek folklore seems to illustrate what we understand of this virtue. But, in it lies a deep lesson about the relationship between connection to the ground and our aspirations in life.
In fact, the word’s roots literally dig into the earth. Humility comes from the Latin word, humilis, which in fact derives from another Latin word, humus, which means “earth, ground, or soil.” A person that is humilis is one that is close to the earth. However, over time, the concept evolved from mere closeness to the ground, a state of abjectness or lowliness to something far richer. Rather than closeness to physical earth, it became a metaphor for one’s contact with reality and truth. A humble person has a right sense of the ordering of things and their place in that order while a proud person overestimates their own self-importance in relationship with larger world.
Understanding the truth about ourselves and establishing a right relationship to the world has been the source of immense debate and seemingly limitless and inconclusive theories. Perhaps that is why a discussion about humility can also be so confusing. “For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways; on the other he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life.” ((Pastoral Constitution on the Catholic Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 10)) On the one hand, we fear holding a hubristic vision of ourselves, one in which we hold a privileged role in the world. On the other hand, we perceive our uniqueness and transcendence in relation to other created things. The question is, “which of these experiences is true?” Christian tradition would respond: both.
As narrated in the Book of Genesis in the story of Adam of Even, recognizing one’s real limits is a humble act. Because man and woman estimated themselves as higher than they in fact were, supposing that they alone could determine “good and evil,” God expelled them from the Garden of Eden. Their lack of humility led them to reject the real limits placed upon their aspirations for divinity, which ironically enough, they had been given to enjoy.
However, despite the limits placed on man’s seemingly limitless aspirations, the Bible also also reminds us of our own grandeur. As the Psalmist proclaimed:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet.” (Psalm 8: 5-7)
[pullquote]Man’s sense of self-importance and desire for infinity is not all together hubristic. When contemplating the world around him, he recognizes the real difference between himself and the other created beings. His intelligence, freedom, self-reflection, and capacity for transcendence all speak to him of his privileged nature, which is a reflection of having been created in God’s image and likeness. Humility allows man to also recognize and accept his godliness.[/pullquote]
Nearly 1500 years ago, St. Augustine commented on the development in the Christian understanding of the humility. “Do you wish to be great?” the great bishop of Hippo asked, “Think first about the foundations of humility.” Where we might see conceptual conflict, St. Augustine, and much of the Western tradition in centuries past, found synthesis. Human aspiration, seemingly limitless in its longings, is deeply linked to the virtue of groundedness. One cannot strive for the heavens without having his or her feet planted firmly on the ground.
© 2015 – Adam Ureneck para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC