Transformation in Christ by Dietrich Von Hildebrand:
On Humility (Chapter 3: 149 – 188):
Take a few minutes and consider your personal reaction to the word Humility or Humble. In American culture it can be seen as a great asset or great weakness. It is context dependent. The American Psychological Association[i] and Forbes[ii] business magazine see great utility in the trait of humility. It is perhaps the antithetical to seek to be humble for personal gain – gain which is often aimed at material wealth or increased social status – but nonetheless even if starting out with an end goal that is perhaps not so humble – there is intrinsic value in being humble. If you are interested in personal growth for personal gain stop reading here and visit the web links at the end of the article.
If you are interested in Humility as an aspect of your spiritual journey or development Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s chapter on Humility can humble your self-assessment of your possession of humility. On a 9 by 5 inch canvas each page is a round of jabs, hooks, and revelation. At least in sixteen feet by twenty feet canvas you have a referee to stop the fight, a corner crew to tend to your wounds, and an end in sight – win or lose. Humility on a theological plane has no end – it is a way of being that continues to deepen and expand.
Round 1: Dietrich opens up with a series of body blows aimed at Pride. The early round body blows are aimed at all efforts for at the “glorification of self” by seeking superiority, power, and wealth as an end in and of themselves to promote our own ego.
Round 2: Mixing it up with taunts and occasional jabs he describes “Satanic Pride’s” ability to isolate and divide us from each other and from our God. In our perverted sense of our own free will we are given license to use our God-given talents for an “orgy of self-glorification and nourishment.”
Round 3: Now isolated from each other and our God, we dig in and fight on acquiring vestiges of success wherever we can. They become the measure of our worth and of the worth of others.
Round 4: Wounding our sense of identity in worldly possessions and achievements he deftly seizes on refusal to truly have a sense of obedience to God, to accept help from others, and to be open to the sovereignty of God.
Round 5: We are feeling creaturely now, human. Revelation, if it has not come by this point, will not come at all by this book. My awareness of my creaturely being relative to the divine is all too apparent.
Round 6: Off the pages. Where is pride negative in my life? Without getting too much into the weeds of the “I” let me propose practicing humility is a form of spiritual healing. If we truly believe in a personal God, in a higher power and ultimate creator, than any sense of pride is misplaced. All belongs to our creator. But let’s step it down a few planes to the depths of everyday human life. How many anxieties and fears do we hold every day? What are they connected to and are they manifested? It is 4:45 a.m. I am fearful of certain work pressures. I am fearful for the health, safety, and well-being of my family. I am at times overly self-conscious of my presentation. If I allow myself too much worry, I can fall into worrying about the abyss of missed opportunities of the past and potential challenges of the future (of which I can have no influence on today). In a sense I can fall into a trap of having “false pride” that I alone can control my destiny and should have controlled my past in all things (controllable and uncontrollable) within the realm of my God given ability and limits. Portraying a sense of confidence of mastery (false pride) over things that I aptly cannot control or worse yet have falsely presented as something I possess – will leave me in a state of fear and angst of discovery of my true ineptitude. I am unworthy of what I have today. Have you ever felt that way? If I am afraid and fearful (without an unusual event being present like say an armed thief, as opposed to an unarmed thief where my insane pride thinks I can handle myself just fine) why is that so if I am truly humble, trusting in God, and not overly attached to any sense of material wealth, social status, or sense of my own importance?
Round 7: Each of us has different situations and deficits when it comes to Pride and other barriers to true humility. Dietrich explores these dimensions of barriers to humility, both grand and miniscule hindrances’ that creep into our lives. The barrage of punches, revelations, and humorous depictions of the human condition blur into one elongated round of timeless confrontation with God. Right hook to the jaw and down to the canvas for an 8 count:
“Against the background of what he has received from God, in the light of the gratuitous gifts of God and the high call addressed to him, he comes to understand that he is nothing by his own force, that he has made inadequate use of the natural endowments as well as of the supernatural gifts of grace he owes to God, that he is an unprofitable servant.”
Round 8: Many of us have been on a conscious spiritual journey on and off our entire lives. We may have perfected certain aspects of humility along the way and may not be so inclined to take a left hook to the jaw by an author questioning our humility. There are many pitfalls even for the devout religious:
“The reason is, first, that humility implies our consciousness of our own frailty and of the constant danger of sin. No one is truly humble unless he is imbued with the sense of the permanent menace which pride represents to fallen man.”
Round 9-11: The application of humility and how we treat others versus how we treat ourselves is delved into here with equal cleverness as the preceding rounds. You cannot read this without reconsidering the folly of self-appraisal. Seeking humility is not yet another personal gain or spiritual accomplishment. Reflecting on your own spiritual wealth is to diminish your wealth simultaneously. We reflect on our faults and sins to seek being closer to God. For others we seek the face and glory of God as evidenced in their positive attributes. We do not judge and assume we are worse off than most, except for perhaps by the grace and mercy of God.
Round 12: Why bother? I am content the way I am. On the canvas looking up at the majestic sky:
“For it is only the humble soul, the soul that has emptied itself, which can be fully penetrated by the divine Life it has received in holy Baptism: and it is upon such a soul that there falls a reflection of the greatness and infinitude of God.”
To be honest, I did not know Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s pedigree[iii] before I embarked on reading this book. Accidentally he has joined the ranks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of my favorite writers and I am only a third of the way through this book. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Hildebrand was Catholic though I do not hold that against Bonhoeffer. Both were German and heavily influenced by the evil era of Hitler’s Germany. One fled and lived. One returned to Germany and died a martyr’s death. He was a convert to Christianity. Sometimes converts make better Catholics! There are many famous theologians who were converts.[iv]
It is interesting to keep in mind the riches of the natural world and the literary world as resources for re-affirming our faith. At the end of the day though we must be careful to ensure our mind and soul remains grounded and in concert with our held beliefs.
For Catholics it is the written word of the bible, the mass, the Eucharist and the rich tradition of the Catholic Church. It is also recognizing the errors of the Catholic Church and avoiding false pride, grandiosity, judging others, and risk associated with organized religion being corrupted by man’s errors.
Whether you are Catholic or not, take time now:
I have come to believe that heaven is here on earth when we choose to be envoys of God, to live in Christ image, to the best of our ability. In essence God was roused two thousand years ago and sent his only son. We only need to be still awhile and be open to the word and presence of God.
Even Jesus went into the desert for forty-days before his formal ministry (today’s Gospel: Mark 1. 12-15)[v]. Where is your desert for sacred reflection and prayer? Where is your dark night for confrontation with God? With Satan? These are lofty ideas defying the simplicity of humility and prayer. Take care of these and you will be prepared for any dark nights.
Please share with family or friends during this Lenten season. Now is a perfect time for spiritual renewal!