Many observers of nature and indeed of human nature, note how there is an order and a hierarchy in things, whether this is something like the food chain or how any organization works. People often speak about the “natural order” of things. Thinking about this further, people also like to be recognized and acknowledged and concerns about one’s status or standing in a community can be very important indeed. A loss of status, or the experience of being ignored or snubbed, can be very difficult to bear.

In the Gospel for this weekend, Jesus speaks about such matters. As so often happens, he uses a very human or familiar situation: people working out where to sit at a dinner. We have all been there. There can be a jostling for the best seats or feelings of hurt when we are not on the top table. Worse still, we can grab a good place, only to be bumped down to a lower place!

Jesus is critical of those who constantly seek status or those who have the expectation that they should always be acknowledged as important people. Why is he so critical of what might, at first glance, seem to be something natural: part of that natural order? Perhaps it is because this approach to life can so easily lead to an inflated sense of self-importance and to the sort of ambition that tramples down others to feed that ambition. Worse still, all this focus on status and importance can lead to a super ego and a lack of awareness or sensitivity to others: the ego has landed! In extreme cases, people can see themselves as exceptions to every social convention, or even as above the law. I am sure that many of us have seen how such an attitude in a person sadly leads to the breakup of relationships and to many trials and difficulties.

Instead, our Lord teaches us about a virtue that can be the antidote to this. It is not perhaps a very popular virtue in our present culture and yet it is essential for human and spiritual growth. It is, of course, the virtue of humility. However, we need to be clear what this means. It is not a sort of weak or simpering attitude or of having a very low self-esteem. Nor is it going around saying how terrible we are. Ironically, this can be a sort of backdoor pride; for when we pull ourselves down, then we can really be waiting for others to say how great we are!

So, what is this virtue of humility? If we look at the root of the word, we can easily grasp something of what humility might be. Our English word “humility” comes from the Latin word humus which means “of the earth” or “earthed.” Humility, then, means being earthed: that is being grounded or realistic and honest about who we are. It means having a deep knowledge and understanding of both our gifts and our strengths, but also of our faults and failings. Humility also helps us to recognize that we are not self-made; we rely on others and above all on God. Once we are grounded or earthed like this, two great things can take place.

First, we can use our gifts and talents happily and in service of others. We are no longer looking over our shoulder to see who might be competing with us or whether doing something will gain us more points and increase our status. Instead, it helps us to be generous to others and also thoughtful of others. We are still ambitious in a way but this ambition is for using well the gifts that God has given to us. We understand that they are not our gifts in service of our ego, but rather that God has given us these gifts to be used in his service. This brings forth great fruits. As the First Reading notes: “conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.”

Secondly, it also means that we can make spiritual progress. With God’s help, we can build up our strengths, but also work on our weaknesses. Humility teaches us that we are not perfect and that we need to develop ways to overcome them and that we rely totally on God’s help to do all this. Sometimes too, we may feel that we have so many faults and failings. True humility will stop us being discouraged or giving up. Instead, it helps us to seek out God’s help and to know that God loves us and is with us.

A great way to grow in humility is to take a minute or two at the end of each day and to make an examination of conscience. We can simply review the day and look at how we have used our gifts well and where we have fallen down (and then resolve to do better the next day). The examination always includes asking for God’s help in this project. Furthermore, we have what we might call the sacrament of humility: reconciliation or confession. It is a wonderful way to heal our faults and failings that in all humility we can see, but then to be filled with God’s love and strength to try again to grow in goodness and in love.