Humility and the Authentic Self

In one of James K.A. Smith’s newsletters he comments on one of the threads of Merton’s reflections that had, as he puts it, “burrowed its way into [my] psyche: his unique reflections on humility.”

Below are entirely Smith’s thoughts based on his reading of Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation“:

[Merton] is a remarkable diagnostician of various forms of false humility. For example: Merton notes that there is a way of “being humble” that is really just conformity to the expectations of others. But that, he says, is not humility. In fact, “there can be an intense egoism in following everybody else.” In other words, sometimes “being humble” (or “acting” humble) in terms of what others expect humility should look like is actually a form of self-interest, an intense desire to be seen as humble.

It is interesting that when he first discusses this, Merton associates the saint and the artist, the monk and the poet. The great temptation for the monk, he says, is to cloak oneself in what one assumes the crowd expects humility to look like. “If they do this job thoroughly,” he notes, “their spiritual disguises are apt to be much admired. Like successful artists, they become commercial.” These “spiritual disguises” that pass themselves off as humility are anything but; they still have their eye too much on others. At root, this is still a posture of self-interest: I see you seeing me and I want to be seen well. Merton continues:

“A clever kind of insolvent servility, a peculiar combination of ambition, stubbornness and flexibility, a “third ear” keenly attuned to the subtlest modulations of the fashionable cliché–with all this you can pass as a saint or a genius if you conform to the right group.”

I think Merton’s keen insight is this: humility is not comparative. Humility, strangely enough, is not fundamentally a matter of how I look or relate to other people; it is, instead, about the posture of my being toward God. Like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, what it means for me (and you) to be humble is somehow utterly singular–a secret, of sorts. Thus Merton cautions that the saint isn’t always the one who conforms to our expectation of what it means to be humble.

“One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do to know what to make of him. In fact, they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends.”

True humility, Merton says, can be mistaken for pride precisely because one who is truly humble is answering a singular call that is a secret wrestling of another soul with God. Merton ventures a definition: “humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are alike, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe.”

Humility is not pretending to be less than you are; humility is submission to one’s utter dependence on God to be who you are called to be. “And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself,” Merton says, “and to be nobody but the [person], or the artist, that God intended you to be.” And if you do that, “you will be made to feel that your honesty is only pride.”

It may seem strange, given our collective assumptions about what counts as humility, but this sort of humility requires courage. It requires a certain kind of refusal of expected norms. It requires courage to answer a call. It requires courage to wrestle with a God others cannot see. It requires courage to detach oneself from the expectations of others and say: this is not about you. “True humility excludes self-consciousness,” Merton later observes, “but false humility intensifies our awareness of ourselves to such a point that we are crippled, and can no longer make any movement or perform any action without putting to work a whole complex mechanism of apologies and formulas of self-accusation.”

True humility, in other words, starts to sound like liberation. Which isn’t to say it’s easy.

I thought this post on humility should not be missed in a time when the self looms so large in our day, and the love of comfort and consumerism marks our culture, and even our faith.


About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
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2 Responses to Humility and the Authentic Self

  1. kostas says:

    This is actually quite excellent and very pertinent to my faith tradition, where externals are most often the sign and criterion of ‘humility’. Monks and the clergy and laity who imitate and venerate monks have established a pattern of ‘humility’ in the Orthodox tradition that has poisoned the Gospel message and unfortunately attracts converts from other Christian traditions who are deceived by appearances of humility and holiness. Thanks for sharing this. I need to go back to re-read this book by Merton. He was a much truer monk than the ones I have encountered in my Orthodox tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your note. Humility does not get a lot of “love” in this day and age, but it remains a value to the One who made us for Himself. My first reading of Merton was his little “Thoughts in Solitude.” One of the best Orthodox authors I’ve read is John Zizioulas’ “Being as Communion” re: the the Triune God – since we owe a lot to the Orthodox tradition for its deep contemplation on the Trinity. Perhaps you can suggest other Orthodox authors. Grace to you.


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