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Know Thyself: What Medieval Christians Teach Us About Humility

May 6th, 2021 | 13 min read

By Grace Hamman

“Are Americans humble?” a family member asked as I explained part of my dissertation on medieval humility to him. “Um… I don’t really think so. Not generally,” I awkwardly mumbled. This answer was unsatisfactory; firstly, because I bungled it. Secondly, because it was not what he wanted to hear. Sometimes we understand humility as a quality of remembering your roots. Star athletes lay claim to it when they win impossible victories, demonstrating that they will not forget their beginnings now that they’ve achieved success. Donald Trump wanted his Secret Service code name to be “Humble,” drawing on the impression of humility as an especially American, not-afraid-to-get-your-hands-dirty kind of thing. Such versions of humility become implicated in a politicized gatekeeping. “East coast elites” could not possibly be humble. This humility has nothing to do with particular actions or self-knowledge.

Once, I typed “humble” into Google, hoping to discover what most people would find in a search for a solid definition. The search engine describes it as “having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance.” Google also lists “deferential, submissive, diffident, self-effacing, unassertive” as synonyms. Historically, such versions of humility were often enjoined to women and people of color in order to encourage submission to frequently oppressive authorities. A close friend who works in ministry recently told me, “Humility is a concept I’m really tired of right now. It feels like a nostalgic code word for keeping civility at the cost of truth.” Need I add that this friend is a woman? In other words, she felt like humility was deployed sometimes as a weapon: just shut up, be humble, sit down. Your words are not important enough.

Humility carries some serious cultural and historical baggage.

And yet — faced with a global pandemic, frighteningly deep cultural and political divisions that have turned violent in recent days, and the ongoing reckoning with racism in America, writers and thinkers across the political spectrum have commended humility as more important than ever. But, given the conflicted usages of the word and paraphrasing the Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: which humility? Whose humility?

We can refresh our tired versions of the virtue by turning to the medieval church’s far more robust ideas of what it meant to be truly humble. For medieval people, humility was the catalyst of communal and individual transformation. It was the root of the virtues; it was the way of Jesus.

How did medieval people define humility?

The twelfth-century monk and theologian Bernard of Clairvaux provided an influential definition of humility that would be used over and over in the centuries that followed. He argued that humility was true self-knowledge, especially regarding one’s faults, errors, and neediness. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, is one of the many who translate it into English. Humility, he writes, is when a person has a true knowledge of herself and as a result, does not hold herself too high. Instead, a humble person keeps in mind his or her just deserts, “considerynge ever his freletee [frailty].”

Frailty is a fascinatingly complex word. It can indicate one of the medieval church’s favored topics: humanity’s sin. Frailty also describes the human condition itself: being limited, embodied, created. In Bernard’s definition of humility, to practice the virtue is to reject the myth that humans are autonomous beings, god-like in power, rational comprehension, and independence. Humility instead recognizes and receives creatureliness, our natural need in that we were created for God and for one another. This humility — the welcome of created dependence — is the humility literally embodied by Jesus Christ, who embraced human infirmity in the Incarnation. Two architects of medieval humility can help us to creatively reimagine the contours of humble thought and action: Bernard himself and the fourteenth-century anchorite, Julian of Norwich.

Healing Community Through Humility: Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux’s definition of humility makes the virtue sound like it might be confined to laborious and solitary soul-searching. But Bernard did not write his first work, The Steps of Humility and Pride, for private reading; it was meant to be shared amongst the community of brothers with whom he lived and worked. Bernard focuses on the importance of humility to community. He contends that it is crucial to know and identify one’s own weakness and ignorance for the sake of one’s neighbor because generally speaking, we are very good at hiding our faults from ourselves, and equally skilled at identifying faults in others. For Bernard, a lack of humility impedes the practice of both justice and mercy in communities.

Inextricable from mercy and justice, humility is essential for a community to properly function. If humility is not practiced, both sides dissolve into conflict-ridden chaos as motives are read onto others and assumptions are made. Meanwhile, we dismiss our own flaws as trivial or understandable or ignore them entirely. Like most people, I am usually far more merciful regarding my own actions and motives than I am when someone else commits an error. A trivial example: if I am repeatedly late to meetings, I have a dozen good reasons. I have three children, I just moved, my life is complex right now — and so on! If someone else is repeatedly late, I often understand it as something more serious: a lack of care or disorganization.

Humility, Bernard wants his brethren to understand, reverses these thought patterns. In self-examination, truthful, just judgment is essential. Am I, in fact, careless or disorganized or not taking other people’s time seriously? For interactions with others, when we do not have the privilege of insight into their inmost thoughts, our patterns of thought should be consistently merciful. Though weakness and ignorance are no excuse for bad behavior, Bernard insists that humility, truthful and confessional knowledge of one’s flaws, allows for sinful self-deception to be “consumed in a burning desire for justice,” and ignorance to be “dispelled by generosity.” For Bernard and his followers, humility as the confessional acknowledgment of sin, guilt, or simple error governed the possibility of life together in just and peaceable community.

Bernard’s words can help us in relationship with one another at the personal level and at the macro, social level. We live in a culture where the primary public mode of explaining our actions and rationale is defensive. The dominance of this defensive mode is one of the primary reasons that Americans find themselves in the hostile, polarized, untrusting position from which our common discourse currently cannot escape.

To reject this automatic defensiveness, as Bernard urges, is to become deeply vulnerable — to hand your enemies ammunition if you admit wrongdoing or error. The immediate impulse to completely condemn enemies while simultaneously excusing all of my side’s actions as reasonable, or justified though perhaps not ideal, eliminates space for both mercy and justice in our lives together.

Bernard does not teach us to ignore wrongdoing in others; he teaches humility in reflection on our own actions and mercy towards enemies. I find myself writing these words not long after the violent insurrection at the Capitol building. To explain away that deadly riot would be at best dishonest and at worst, enabling wrong. As we move forward as Americans, humility is more important than ever in the public spaces of our life together.

Both Right and Left must make room for acknowledgements of what led to this revolt against democracy, though it was the language and action of the Right that birthed it. In this particular case, the Left must resist self-righteousness, take responsibility for the ways in which some members have encouraged reckless extremism and deepened the rift between parties, and embrace those involved who wish to confess and repudiate their past actions and reckless language. The Right, conversely, must do some serious soul searching. They must demonstrably reject the lies and conspiracies encouraged or ignored too long by their leading adherents and take responsibility for their language. In fostering our own self-awareness of the consequences of our actions, and conversely, actively developing mercy towards the actions of others, even when we most radically disagree with them, we undermine the dangerous divisive and defensive mode that led us to this point.

The blind, willful partiality of the defensive mode of much of our public discourse destroys space for learning and teaching. As a student and teacher, Bernard could tell you that no one learns when they are being screamed at by someone they do not respect, and very few people transform in meaningful ways when taught by a hypocrite unwilling to admit their own faults. Humility creates space. Humility as confessional acknowledgment of weakness and faults, especially on the part of those in power, fosters justice. Bernard urges us to remember our own frailty as we seek wholeness in community.

Knowing Yourself as a Beloved Child: Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century anchorite and writer, teaches us to embrace our individual frailty as a gift. In 1372, Julian experienced a series of what she called “showings,” revelatory sights and sounds that she received during a severe illness which nearly killed her. After meditating upon these showings for many years, usually published today as Revelations of Divine Love, she wrote and rewrote them. Fittingly, Julian’s work centrally considers the limitations of human understanding.

In one of Julian’s most famous passages, she describes Christ as a mother and Christians as his children. The child exemplifies humility not caused by self-hatred but by the abiding acknowledgment of littleness and a complete confidence in the love of the mother Jesus. Julian notes that when we fall down, sin, or do something stupid, our weakness becomes apparent to us. Then, we are often so ashamed of ourselves that we flee and hide, from ourselves, from our communities, from God.

But Jesus wills that we, in Julian’s words, practice “the condition of a child.” She notes that when a little one is sick, or afraid, even when she has done something wrong, she runs hastily to her mother. And if she can’t run, she cries with all her might for her mother to come to her. The child confesses humbly: I need you. Julian was clearly familiar with children. When my three year-old does something wrong, like hit his sister, he does not run and hide. Even when he has to go to timeout, he wants to be comforted by his parents. He trusts that our love for him is bigger than his faults.

Julian’s beautiful word picture is also a statement about human capacity. She pointedly writes that she understands “no higher state in this life than childhood, in weakness and failing of might and wit, until the time our gracious mother brings us to our father’s bliss” [my translation]. In other words, even as adults, we all are truly children in regards to the limits of our intellect and power regarding divine truth and living well here on earth, until we attain the full vision and strength of heaven. This permanent childhood reflects the reality which Christians must continually confess to ourselves. We are created beings, often shortsighted in regards to truth, justice, and our own capabilities.

Humility entails reminding ourselves how limited we are in our understanding of the world around us. In my own case, I am a thirty-two year-old straight white woman from Phoenix, Arizona. My experiences and reference point are necessarily different from someone who is a person of color, LGBTQ, from somewhere else, a man, younger than me, or older than me. I must learn how to listen to the experiences of others in order to learn what it is like to live in a body and life different than mine. Similarly, others do not know what it is like to be me. I can only learn from other people when I set aside my defensiveness to listen seriously to someone. I can only change when I confess that I do not understand.

Children are an appropriate image for humility because of their willingness to acknowledge their need, and seek out help. The idea of children as exemplars of humility is ancient, rooted in Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. Children do not loathe themselves for their dependence on others. Is a child unhappy because she needs her parents to feed her? Or does a good, loving parent resent her child because the child needs her assistance? On the contrary — this sweet dependence, even as it often makes our lives challenging, ties us close to our small children. Julian’s image helps us to conceptualize how we avoid descending into self-loathing as we learn our own frailty. As children of God, we are incalculably valuable.

In our dependence, we have been given the gift of learning from one another. It was widely understood in the Middle Ages that childlike humility was the gateway to learning. Thomas Aquinas had earlier written that if the virtues were a building, humility would be the foundation. Thomas’s assertion is common sense. How does a child learn to read or play chess or make good decisions? Only by first acknowledging, implicitly or explicitly, that they do not know how and seeking out instruction from someone more advanced. Learning requires desire and an acknowledgement of need. Imagine a child who cannot read stubbornly insisting that in fact they do know how and do not need help. This child would then never learn how to read.

Yet, embarrassed by our shortcomings, or stubbornly resistant to acknowledging that we don’t know or that we failed, we ignore our need all the time, especially in regards to tough situations like politics, racial reconciliation, and personal relationships. A combination of desire and acknowledgement of need is at the root of spiritual and moral transformation. Our world desperately needs us to learn how to practice confessions of need. The body of Christ ministers to the world when we can recognize our limitations and embrace them as God’s gift to us in our individual createdness, creating a community where everyone’s voice is both valuable and heard, and acknowledging a mutual dependence on one another in our shared goal of seeking the kingdom.

Practicing Medieval Humility in Postmodernity

Humility is not a one-size-fits-all virtue. It will look different in individual lives. However, as Christians, humility as acknowledgment of our created limitations, and our errors, must shape our civic engagement, from the pandemic to political dispute to the ongoing struggles for racial justice. Here are a few suggestions for practicing medieval humility in 2021.

Practice recognizing and confessing all kinds of frailty: sin, error, and littleness.

You are not humble if you know inside that you don’t really comprehend something but then you never acknowledge your lack of understanding. Humility is never merely interior, nor the action of shutting up when you don’t know about something (although at times it may include a disciplined silence, especially if you’ve been in the historical position of power for a long time). It requires actions of seeking out help or apologizing for previous wrongdoing in order to become the transformative virtue that medieval people valued.

Live into the paradox of being both little and the image of God.

We are all children in our comprehension of this difficult and complex world. But humility does not mean you allow abusers to abuse, the unjust to reign, or your needs to go unmet, because you have such a low estimate of yourself and don’t feel qualified to speak into weighty matters. Julian reminds us that you are also the image of God, His beloved child. In the words of C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” It is not humble to pretend to be something other than who you are.

Reflect on your thoughts, actions, and history.

When you begin to recognize yourself and your weaknesses, strengths, and motivations, you can begin to change those implicit biases, errors, and the ways you’ve hurt others. Additionally, consider the institutions to which you belong, including your church, your schools, your background, your family, and your country. The hardest part of this process is taking into account how your own story may keep you from truthful recognition of your biases, errors, and where you have caused pain.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, two characters argue about the differing character of how men and women love. Captain Harville insists that men love the strongest and longest, and he cites poetry and literature on the inconstancy of women as a witness in his favor. Anne Elliot admits that men love very well, but she counters, “…if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Austen’s trademark humor shines through and blunts the sadness of a clever woman who did not have a voice in her time and died poor, despite the popularity of her novels. Much has changed since Jane Austen wrote Persuasion. However, Austen still gently challenges us to carefully consider what we unthinkingly take as truth: whose narratives and experiences do we take seriously? Whose stories are being told? Some narratives that have historically been more prominent than others require re-evaluation. And some narratives that have been sidelined time after time need careful and loving attention. Most dangerously, we can take our own personal experiences as gospel.

Everyone is subject to the same standards of truth and justice: those embodied in the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Everyone will at last have to account for their life stories. And everyone needs to practice humility in order to learn and grow in their relationships here on earth. However, because power and familiarity can obfuscate truthful self-knowledge, it is particularly important for white people, men, the wealthy, or anyone else in a historical or individual position of power and influence to pursue humility. Those in positions of prestige or influence must resist the urge to see their own narratives as the dominant, most truthful story in history, education, or literature. The more power you have had either as an individual or historically, the more self-reflection is needed. Learn how to listen to different narratives than your own in order to practice discernment as you pursue humility.

Relatedly, remember humility can be painful.

Humility can be humiliating; there’s a reason why there’s a semantic link between the words. Humility will sometimes feel, in a word, bad. Jesus, through his example in the gospels, has shown us that in our humility we also run the great risk of being misunderstood. It can feel frustrating and unfair to acknowledge your own weakness (especially in conflict) and not hear the other person or group reciprocate. Like most people, I hate admitting I am wrong. I feel even worse when I am still angry at the other person, when they have acted as poorly as I have (or worse!), or fed up with an entire political system. But while I cannot force others to change or practice humility, I am called to keep learning and growing. This attitude applies to both wrongs committed by myself as an individual and historical and structural wrongdoing that continues to hurt people in the present. Humility is only the beginning of a series of reflections that may (and often should) end in direct action.

Respect others who change their minds or acknowledge need.

This point sounds like an elementary school truism but is profoundly counter-cultural. Politicians and churches alike rarely publicly acknowledge either need or error, to the great cost of all. To celebrate someone changing their mind rankles: I have heard many complain about the official recommendations for dealing with COVID-19, which have changed over and over. However, these changing guidelines indicate our growing knowledge about the virus. Medical professionals practice a kind of humility in admitting their error before and changing their recommendations as they learn.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head infectious disease expert in America, is an example of someone who has allowed humility to infiltrate his work and change the course of his action. In the early 1990s, he received severe criticism from activists for the handling of the AIDS crisis. Rather than responding with outrage and doubling down on his methods, he became good friends with one of the activists who had criticized him most, and seriously listened to him. His choices saved lives and opened up better ways to address the devastating AIDS epidemic.

To confess, and even welcome weakness as created dependence that offers opportunities for loving one another, goes against the grain in our power-worshiping culture. Yet, as medieval Christians understood, to practice humility is to emulate Jesus in the Incarnation. Our humility is like a child’s drawing next to a Caravaggio painting: a tiny, distant, but valuable imitation of God’s surrender of limitless power to become an infant, and then later to be crucified by his people.