St. Teresa of Ávila taught that the virtue of humility is best understood as true knowledge: to see yourself as you really are, neither too high nor too low. If you have an inflated opinion of yourself and look down on other people, humility reminds you that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. If you have an excessively negative self-image and see yourself as unworthy of love, humility corrects that false impression in light of God’s profound love for you and the fact that you are created in his image and likeness.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ parable gets to the heart of the matter. The Pharisee actually leads an exemplary life: it’s good that he is not greedy, dishonest, or adulterous! And yet Jesus tells us that this man did not go home justified. His prayer did not humble him or open him up to God—or to his neighbor, the very tax collector he despised. In fact, it was no more than a recital of his own good actions. It’s almost as though he thought God should be the one thanking him! He was not seeing things as they really were.
By contrast, the tax collector had an honest appraisal of himself, “a sinner,” and his prayer was a real turning toward God: “Be merciful to me” (Luke 18:13).
The season of Lent is a time for deepening humility. It’s a time for us to grow in the kind of humility that sees things as they really are: we are sinners in need of God’s love, but we are also deeply loved and valued by God—to the point that Jesus gave his very life for us.
So how do we grow in humility? It happens every time we experience God’s mercy. Like the tax collector, as we see ourselves as sinners who have received mercy, our humility increases. Mercy fills us with joy, even as it humbles us.
St. Teresa also taught that the way to exercise humility is not to grit your teeth and try really hard, but to forget about yourself and turn your attention to God by loving him in your neighbor. Your acts of charity will flow out as gratitude for God’s free gift of love and mercy.
“O God, have mercy on me a sinner. Help me to love you in my neighbor today.”
Rejoicing in this annual celebration of our Lenten observance, we pray, O Lord, that, with our hearts set on the Paschal mysteries, we may be gladdened by their full effects.