Many of us will remember Romper Room, the television series seen by children all across the United States between 1953 to 1994. Every major city had its local version led by a female teacher who was always addressed as, Miss. Out of New York I watched Miss Joan, who I claim as my first catechist, introducing me to a conscious and fundamental truth about God.
Romper Room began with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by half an hour of exercises, songs and moral lessons about how to be well-mannered and good. Halfway through each segment the 4-5 year olds would sit at their desks for cookies and milk, but only after (get this!) praying grace. And what a perfect prayer:
God is good,
God is great,
And we thank Him for our food.
I really don't like the word great unless it's used to extol God. And what a blasphemy (God insult) when a terrorist shouts out God's greatness after murdering someone. But indeed, God is great: wondrous, creative, beyond, awesome, powerful, mysterious, all-good, surpassing, vast, tremendous!
And when we forget this and use the word great about ourselves, our great power, our great weapons, the great reach of our spheres of influence, our great wealth, our great resources - then we have lost humility. We rarely hear the word humble or humility anymore because we wrongly think it means being demeaned, degraded or shamed.
Humility is a virtue. And a virtue is a practiced or cultivated goodness. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means good earth: that I am down to earth about myself.
Here are three voices who make plain what humility is. The three live in religious community, which doesn't mean they're experts, but as in religious community you don't choose who you live with which makes the human/spiritual challenge more demanding. Sister Gail Fitzpatrick was the Abbess of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey. She writes:
"The fruit of humility is naturalness. Humble people feel at home being who they are and they do not need to play roles in order to impress others or compete with them. They're confident about using their own talents and strengths without drawing attention to themselves, and are not threatened by the talents and accomplishments of others. They live in such a way that goodness comes naturally, treating other people with respect because it's the right thing to do."
And Thomas Merton who wrote from the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky says:
"If I am the center of the universe then everything belongs to me. I can claim as my due all the good things of the earth. I can rob and cheat and bully other people. I can help myself to anything I like and no one can resist me...Humility, therefore is absolutely necessary if man is to avoid acting like a baby all this life. To grow up means in fact to become humble, to throw away the illusion that I am the center of everything and that other people only exist to provide me with comfort and pleasure."
Sister Joan Chittester was the prioress of the Erie, Pennsylvania Benedictine Monastery. She writes:
"When we have to be the best, we can never be ourselves ... Deep down we know that we are both more and less than people see. Once we claim our essential smallness we are freed from the need to lie even to ourselves about our frailties. It is a terrible burden to have to be perfect, to need to be right when we fear we are not, to never be wrong when deep down we know that we are. Humility asks us to accept the idea that we have plenty of room for growth and growing up depends on learning from others."