by Father Robert Lauder
Probably every spiritual tradition and every spiritual writer encourages people to be humble. The advice is important but not so easy to achieve, and that seems a little strange to me.
If humility, as spiritual writers claim, is seeing things the way they really are, why is it so difficult to be humble? Reality is there before us. On some level, we wish to know reality, to grasp the truth, to avoid self-deception and to see things the way they really are. Somehow we are either deceived, or we deceive ourselves. Could it be that pride may be at the root of all our sins? In sinning, we, in some way, place ourselves above God.
Lately, I have been thinking about humility in relation to conscience. Every person has a conscience. The definition of conscience that I like is that a conscience is the habitual way that human consciousness judges in moral matters, in anything that has something to do with our relationship with God.
Because conscience is habitual, it is not easy to change one’s conscience. Though habits are not easy to change, a conscience should be deepening and expanding. Unfortunately, instead of deepening and expanding, it is possible that an individual’s conscience may become more shallow and narrow.
Many realities can influence the formation of a conscience. My guess is that parents and family play a huge role in the formation of a person’s conscience. Also, the schools that a person attends; the books and other material a person reads; and the communities to which a person belongs can influence an individual’s conscience. I suspect that the media can play an influential role especially among the young.
Even though there are many realities that can influence how we make moral judgments, I believe that a person is responsible, at least to some extent, for the conscience that he or she has. For example, we make free choices about what we will read and watch on television, how we will spend our leisure time and with whom we will spend time.
We make countless free choices, and many, directly or indirectly, can influence our conscience. If we are serious about how we are living, then at least occasionally, we should examine and evaluate our moral judgments. Every theologian I read today stresses that people have to be helped to be reflective, to examine their lives and to ask serious questions about how they are living.
How does our conscience contribute to our self image, and how does our self image contribute to our conscience? Does our conscience allow us to love ourselves? Or do we think that self-love will lead to pride?
Much of my moral training in schools gave me the impression that to be humble was to deny any talents or special abilities you had, or at least not to recognize them. I cannot recall anyone encouraging me to love myself. That’s strange, in a way, when we remind ourselves how much God loves us. If God loves us, why shouldn’t we love ourselves?
In his book, “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, Inc., 1963), Seymour Cain comments on the view of love of the existentialist-personalist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, and offers some provocative insights:
“… I can love myself, but self-love is not the egocentric obsession of the indisposable man – the egolatry which takes the self for a plenary and self-sufficient reality. It is rather charity toward oneself as potential being, as a seed or bud, a possible point of contact with the spiritual or the divine. True self-love is not self-complacence or self-infatuation but a creative patience and lucidity that strive to bring forth the highest self-realization. Like every act of charity, it involves both distance and nearness – the capacity to see ourselves as we really are and yet to remain intimate with ourselves. When I love myself in this way it is not only myself I love, but all beings, just as the artist creates for mankind, not for himself alone.” (p. 82)
I think what Cain says about “a possible point of contact with the spiritual or the divine” is what humility can help us appreciate. If humility is seeing ourselves as we really are, it does not involve false, negative thoughts about ourselves but rather an appreciation of the marvelous richness and potential with which God has blessed us.
I have been thinking lately about how we can help our consciences to deepen and broaden. Of course, reading can help, as can associating with good people. Occasionally examining our consciences is exceptionally important. We can slip into an erroneous way of thinking about ourselves and about God.
Perhaps the best way to allow our consciences to grow is to take prayer seriously and to listen to what God is trying to tell us about ourselves.[divider] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.