When Sister Christiana and Mother Therese return from their lunch and the two prayer sessions that framed it, they present me with a reading on humility by Saint John Climacus. The sisters and I have been discussing humility all morning. What does it mean to be humble? Of all virtues, why is humility most important? Because their every gesture is cloaked in humility, because their low voices are so saturated with sincerity, I’m feeling rather proud of myself for getting an interview with the most humble spiritual teachers possible, certainly the most humility-enriched people residing within fifteen miles of the U.S. Capitol! But there I go, getting smug, losing my own humility again.
These cloistered nuns wear traditional habits and headdresses. They chant the divine office eight hours daily with thirteen other Poor Clare sisters in the monastery’s chapel, uplifted by the candlelit glow of thirteenth-century Franciscan ritual. They pray for the nation, the president, and all people in need; they also respond to scores of prayer requests weekly. But only a few priests who come in to say Mass get to see them. People who attend chapel services can hear the nuns’ ethereal voices, but their bodies are always hidden, as is their wish. “We come here to live in obscurity and die in obscurity, and usually we do not know the effect our lives and prayers have upon people,” says Mother Therese, who moved here as a novice more than twenty-five years ago. The sisters are so humble as they grapple with my questions, they’ve already thanked me for setting their minds to humility, insisting I’ve taught them something about it in the process.
So I’m not sure what to expect as their slender fingers slide my way the piece of paper on which is typed the reading on humility by Saint John Climacus. We are seated in the same parlor, separated by a fine-mesh screened partition through which I can see them for the purposes of this rare conversation.
I read aloud from what they’ve given me: “‘Humility is constant forgetfulness of one’s achievements.’ Oh yes, that’s good....”
“‘Humility is the disposition of a contrite soul and the abdication of one’s own will,’” I read on, adding, “Oh, that’s lovely too.”
“Yes, but he is saying that humility is more than these things,” offers Sister Christiana. “You will see when you get to the end.”
I skim to the bottom of the page and read back to them: “Humility is a grace in the soul with a name known only to those who have had experience of it.”
The three of us then utter little gasps you’d ordinarily reserve for fireworks. “It is indescribable wealth, a name and a gift from God.” At this, the nuns seem to indicate, “Oh yes, that’s it,” and I stop reading to look into their delighted faces for a second.
My thirteen-year-old son cannot define humility, but he can approximate what being humble means. “That’s like when you don’t brag about a good thing that has happened because you don’t want other people to feel bad,” he says. What happens to the good thing then? I ask. “Well, you can still enjoy it and think about it,” he says, “but you just keep it inside of yourself.”
No, honey, it’s harder than that. Humility means you stop labeling the things that happen to you as either good or bad. Your life’s assignment is to greet your fellow men with the assumption that they have a good thing inside them that you are curious to discover, no matter who they are. Your narrative, your history, travels with you, but you have stopped worrying about your rank. “Each person is unique,” the sisters like to say. “There is no comparison.” Humility is the great equalizer. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, try viewing poverty as a privilege, as the Poor Clares do.
The Lord finds joy in his people,
He honors the lowly.
—The Liturgy of the Hours
To understand humility and fathom its riches, we must turn the world as we know it on its axis. At first glance, these are not humble times. Young people today seek money, status, and more than their fifteen minutes of acclaim. Being unknown, or off the world’s radar, isn’t enough for so many. One can blog or videotape oneself into an odd sort of prominence. Here in America, our egos crave splashy careers, nicer houses, published books, and tap dance knowledge. Many people suffer and fret as they frantically look outside themselves to determine their worth. Expressions of humility are often viewed as signs of weakness, and the U.S. presidents who bow too low lose respect.
The nuns believe — and many would agree — that Western culture does not foster virtue, and more importantly, that God has gotten lost in all this. We are never responsible for our own advancement, the nuns say. God is. God takes us beyond what we thought we could do, they claim. If we come to think we were responsible for our greatness, we’re misappropriating credit and thereby forgetting the One who matters most. So one large goal of cloistered life is to continually keep God at the center, nudging the striving self or ego off to one side ... or into the next room, or if you’re really accomplished (but not proud, of course), the self can be nullified and made absent altogether.
One might think that it’s much easier to be humble when you live in a cloister with a strict schedule, frosted windows, and a clearly delineated function (abbess, vicaress, portress, etc.) that changes after a relaxed election every three years. But the nuns are dynamic examples of how difficult true humility is to practice. In fact, the nuns say, the effort to stay humble and remain always at God’s disposal clearly runs contrary to basic human instinct — their own included.
“Falling down and getting up is part of it,” says Mother Therese. “The Lord sometimes asks of us more than we can do,” says Sister Christiana. “Then He helps us to do it.”
In the subsequent half hour, the two of them refer to themselves as sinners and failures so many times that finally I stop, a tad exasperated, to ask them, “What is it that you could possibly do that is so sinful?”
“Oh, really, the same things as anybody else,” says Sister Christiana. “Acts of impatience, complaining to myself or to someone else, or in little ways preferring my will to what the bridegroom [Christ] is asking of me.”
Mother Therese later discloses that she feels far from perfect also. She says, “You know, the Lord said, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength,’ and when I examine myself, I know that there are days when I haven’t done that. I just know in my heart that I haven’t. With my whole, whole self, I haven’t. It’s like a daily failure in that way, and it keeps you humble, but that doesn’t stop you from trying harder. Well ...” she stops to refine her remarks. “It’s not about trying harder but instead allowing Him do it all from within.” Humility, then, is getting out of God’s way.
She goes on to describe how God helps her navigate cloistered life’s small irritations. “Well, I might be thinking about another sister — this is sort of personal — and I might ask myself, ‘Why is she so noisy with her books?’ And then upon reflection, I will realize that when I am in my cell, I make as much noise as anybody moving things around. I can be noisy. And in thinking about that, I see in myself what was annoying me in the other sister, and I discover I am feeling much better.” Humility shines through the person of compassion who recognizes her humanity in another. “God is good. I never could have come to that realization myself,” she says.
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.
Lose your life and you will save it.
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Long linked with self-abasement, true humility does not involve repressing talents or feeling inferior. “It’s knowing the truth,” says Mother Therese. “It’s not that I am naught, it’s that I do nothing without God,” says Sister Christiana, “because He said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’”
Though the word humility is derived from the Latin humilitas, which in turn descends from humus, meaning “earth” or “ground,” and though references to man being “dust and ashes” or worm-like abound in the Bible, humility as it has been explained to me does not mean embarrassing yourself, sitting on your hands, or putting yourself down. It is more precisely concerned with the forgetting of the self, and the desire to completely surrender to God. The most often cited quote on this important point comes from the former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who once wrote, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”
Humility is a rich and vitally important concept in all the world’s religious faiths. “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension,” advises the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism.
In the Old Testament, Abraham identifies himself as nothing but “dust and ashes.” Moses is a meek man of obvious importance. In Judaism, the righteous man is humble, existing only to serve others and heal the injured world. Praise and criticism fall with equanimity; sweet and bitter are the same. Success should be surrendered to others. Self-centered victories of the ego are meaningless because death is inevitable. Reads Psalm 144: “Man is like a breath, his days like a passing shadow.”
In Zen Buddhism, humility is the third of six paramitas, or cardinal virtues of the bodhisattva (a humble seeker who forgoes nirvana to help others reach it). The fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader and now a veritable celebrity in the U.S., always refers to himself as a simple monk. He says he walks into a room with the assumption that he is the lowliest person in it.
Buddhist priest Norman Fischer of the San Francisco Zen Center writes that Buddhist humility shares much with the other brands. “True humility,” he says, “would have to be simply trying to appreciate others, [letting] go of concern for one’s own accomplishments, spiritual or otherwise.” This will always be an endless process, he says, aided by meditation and contemplation “because ego is sneaky and, even after its grosser manifestations have been reduced, its subtler tricks go on.”
Prostrations, the act of prayerfully lowering the body toward the floor, are dramatic, sometimes physically rigorous gestures used within the ritual practice of most religions, and they too are useful in the quest to dissolve self-centeredness. In both Islam and Buddhism, prostrations are seen as purifications of the body. There is a Tibetan school of Buddhism that teaches 100,000 full prostrations — which will not only exhaust you, but assist in the good effort to overcome pride.
The Poor Clare nuns prostrate themselves several times a day at different prayerful moments, including when entering the chapel and upon rising for the second time in the morning. They also kiss the floor while praying from the Gospel of John, “And the Word was made flesh,” in memory of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. Poor Clares pray a penitential prayer called the “cross prayer” once a day, outstretching their arms as Jesus’s were on the Cross. “In the beginning, this prayer may seem uncomfortable,” says Mother Therese, “but we get used to it.”
Humility is the fountainhead of peace and the streams of peacefulness flow from it.
—Aphrahat the Persian Sage
The Poor Clare sisters retire to their six-by-eight foot bedrooms (or cells) at nine p.m. every evening, but they do not rest on their straw mattresses for long. At half past twelve, Sister Amata, the sacristan, rings a handheld bell as she walks down the hallway, rousing her fellow sisters from their sleep for matins, the midnight prayer service. “It is said that rising in the night is our greatest external penance,” says Sister Christiana. “Do you agree?” I ask. “Yes!” she says with playful exhaustion.
The nuns go back to bed at one-thirty a.m. Then at five o’clock, Sister Amata rings the bell again. This time, the sisters rise from their cots and bend into a kneeling position, lowering their foreheads toward the floor. They have fifteen minutes to get ready for lauds, the next office of divine prayer, which is followed by fifteen minutes of private meditation.
At six o’clock, a mounted bell rings three times to commemorate the coming of Christ as man. The sisters say a special prayer. This angelus bell will ring again at noon and in the evening at six, requiring prayers each time.
“Part of the humility in our life is the sameness,” says Mother Therese. “It’s a centuries-old tradition and we’re really entrusted with it to keep it living.”
Not everyone can manage the cloister’s prayer schedule, or the heartache involved in the break with immediate family. The nuns can see parents and siblings twice a year, but no hugging is permitted until a twenty-fifth anniversary in the cloister is celebrated.) The sisters tell me that for every one of the fifteen sisters residing in the community, another one has tried and then quit.
Humility is a beautiful tool for managing such transitions. And just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, Mother Therese maintains a humble management style. “She renders to us the service of authority, and indicates to us what would be pleasing to God,” says Sister Christiana.
“I live the common life. There is no power in my life,” admits Mother Therese. In fact, the woman who was abbess for a full twenty-six years before her now serves as her assistant. In that capacity, she also does the laundry.
There are no hierarchies. Nobody stands higher or is better than another. “Humility is truth,” says Mother Therese. “We are what we are in the eyes of God, no more, no less. How other people see you is not who you are. Man sees the appearance; God looks into the heart.”
Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.
Lest you despair that no one outside the cloister is even remotely humble these days, that too many people are exhibiting their vanities on reality television and YouTube, allow me to inform you that — even in a world where rapper Kanye West walks on stage to interrupt Taylor Swift at the Music Video Awards — the meek and the mild are making a sly comeback.
This is what I tell the nuns, at any rate. I tell them that I detect more — not less — interest in humility today, that my research has revealed that social psychologists, political scientists, and corporate leaders are reviewing what humility can teach us. I also mention an American trend I think they will consider good news: that more people are enjoying contemplative experiences at spiritual retreat centers; ordinary people want to fast, meditate, and simplify their lives. I chatter on to explain the popularity of yoga, but I’m not sure the nuns understood. That’s when I mention Oprah Winfrey, who, I think, over time has exhibited a ferocious ego tempered by strong humility. And that’s when I discover that the nuns have never heard of her. “How do you pronounce that?” they ask.
They only know what they need to know to serve God and spin prayers for us, having been exposed to nothing more than carefully selected passages of the National Catholic Register, the Arlington Catholic Herald, the Washington Times, and the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano. That’s it. Neighbors called to get their prayers churning on September 11, 2001, before the Twin Towers collapsed, and one of the sisters believes she heard the plane crash into the Pentagon, about five miles away. But only the smallest amounts of world news are needed or even appropriate to a Poor Clare in the cloister. They pray for the president, but it doesn’t really matter who the president is.
I suddenly feel I’ve said too much. The early winter sun is setting, and the monastery bells indicate that the nuns are due back in chapel anyway. So we stop, and I find it tremendously difficult to say goodbye. I tell them I will come to the public side of the sanctuary after I quickly call myself a taxi cab. I want to hear their chanting of the office one more time.
But then the cab comes almost immediately, and I find myself in a quandary: do I treat myself to hearing the sisters sing, and keep the cab driver waiting? Or do I hop into the car, forgetting my wishes?
I want to hear the sisters, but I find I can’t abandon the driver. It feels inexplicably rude to put my needs over his. So I toss my belongings, then myself, into his backseat. And I stare at the glowing amber chapel windows from the cab’s rear window, unable to discern if I’ve been exceedingly humble or slightly stupid.
The cultivation of true humility could consume more than one lifetime. But given that the Poor Clares’ eyes are trained on eternity, I too try to see the bigger picture. We drive away, I forgive myself, and I feel no need to worry.