"Humility doesn't mean that we should sit around and do nothing, it simply means that we should remember that we are not God"
The Humility of King Canute
King Canute was once ruler of England. The members of his court were continually full of flattery. “You are the greatest man that ever lived…You are the most powerful king of all…Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do, nothing in this world dares disobey you.”
The king was a wise man and he grew tired such foolish speeches. One day as he was walking by the seashore Canute decided to teach them a lesson.
“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.
“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”
“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.
“Yes sire” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honor.”
“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and place it down by the water.”
The servants scrambled to carry Canute’s royal chair over the sands. At his direction they placed it right at the water’s edge.
The King sat down and looked out at the ocean. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”
“Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” cried his entourage
“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Do not dare touch my feet!”
He waited a moment, and a wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.
“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”
In came another wave lapping at the king’s feet. Canute remained on his throne throughout the day, screaming at the waves to stop. Yet in they came anyway, until the seat of the throne was covered with water.
Finally Canute turned to his entourage and said, “It seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”
The Nature of Humility
Humility doesn't mean that we should sit around and do nothing, it simply means that we should remember that we are not God, that God is God, and we are dependent on him.
John Ruskin was a poet, a writer, and an art critic living in London in the late 1800s. He said this about humility. "I believe the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power, or hesitation in speaking his opinion. But really great men have a ... feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than God made them."
What does it mean to live our lives with humility? As a virtue, humility is difficult to define. You cannot work to be humble because then you are trying to achieve something. You cannot practice humility for then you are trying to gain something.
Humility is best defined by what it is not. It is not self-aggrandizement. It is not seeking something for yourself. Jesus makes that clear. But there is more to humility than is apparent on the surface. The Lord does not tell us that we should not seek to be honored at all. He does not say that we should seek no reward for our efforts.
Modern critics would have us believe that humility means absolute selflessness, even to the point of denying ourselves personal happiness and fulfillment. Some even criticize Christians saying we only do what is good and right because it makes us feel happy. These opinions miss the mark entirely.
A desire for personal fulfillment is built into us. We were created with a desire to be happy because it will lead us to the source of all that is good and true and right.
A Sense of Pride
But there is a danger in the opposite extreme. True humility seems to have given way to a feeling that we can do whatever we wish to, have whatever we desire, and act in any way that pleases us. Self indulgent, sinful behavior, is often justified with words such as “Jesus ate with sinners,” or “Jesus loves me.”
It is true Jesus associated with sinners, but that did not mean He condoned their behavior. Remember that Our Lord comes to sinners because the sinners are in most need of conversion, in most need of salvation.
Yes, God loves us, as a father loves his children. But if my son were engaged in self-destructive behavior, while I would continue to love him, I would also do all that I could to keep him from destroying himself.
Humility is the virtue that allows us to put our personal wants and desires to the side, and focus on what God wants from us. This applies to how we live our lives, the work that we do and the art that we create.
Christ does not condemn the natural desire for reward and honor. He elevates it to its proper place. Our desire for true lasting happiness should lead us to God. We must live our lives with humility, realizing that all of our actions reflect upon our relationship with the Almighty. Through humility those words and actions will constantly glorify God.
22ndSunday in Ordinary Time
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org and can be reached at Lawrence@deaconlawrence.com