The Beauty of Humility

Homily for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

When I was in high school, my least favorite science class was chemistry. So, when I went off to college, I decided to pursue a degree in computer engineering—the kind of engineering, I thought, that involved the least amount of chemistry. I would have to take the basic intro to Chemistry classes, but I knew could stop after that. But when I eventually took those classes, instead of disliking chemistry as before, I fell in love with it. I especially loved the cool experiments and demonstrations that the professor would show us to illustrate the concepts we were learning. These often earned an appreciative “ooh” or “ahh” from the class, or even occasionally a spontaneous a round of applause. These demonstrations took what was potentially dull and dry and presented it in an attractive and compelling way. What were once abstract truths in a textbook suddenly became solid and alive before our eyes. Chemistry was no longer boring; it was beautiful. 

And this is what beauty is and what it does. Something is beautiful when it reveals the truth of what it is in an attractive and compelling way. A peach that is dry, hard, and misshapen, for example, is less beautiful than one that is round, juicy, and delicious. The truth of what a peach is, in its full potential, is more perfectly revealed by the peach that melts in your mouth and drips down your chin than the one that you want to spit out and throw away. Beauty is not primarily in the eye of the beholder, in the sense that beauty is primarily subjective or a matter of taste. Rather, beauty is grounded in the truth of what something is, or at least what it can be, when its potential is fully realized. If beauty is in any way in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the sense that beauty causes the beholder to “see” some truth, and in the sense that their eye, their attention, is drawn to that truth. 

When we understand beauty in this way, we can see how profoundly connected it is to humility, which is the theme of our readings today. When we think of the attractive qualities of another person, we don’t always think of humility. And yet, when we encounter someone who is truly humble, we are often drawn to them, almost instinctively. They exert a kind of power over us: we want to be near to them, to talk to them, and to hear what they have to say. We experience a kind of instinctive repulsion, on the other hand, when we encounter someone who is prideful. And the more physically beautiful they are, the more their pride repulses us. Whereas the humble person seems to glow from within and causes everything around them to share in their radiance, the prideful person seems to suck all the light out of the room. A humble person of average physical beauty is ultimately more attractive than a prideful person of extraordinary physical beauty.  

To be humble is to accept the truth of who we are before God. To be humble it is to see ourselves as God sees us—that is, to see ourselves truthfully. Pride is an over-estimation of ourselves; false humility is an under-estimation of ourselves. Humility is in the middle; humility is truth. And that is why the most beautiful person in the world is the saint. A saint is someone who has accepted the truth of who they are before God. A saint is someone who sees themselves as God sees them. A saint is humble. And because they are humble, they are beautiful. Because they are humble, people are drawn to them, attracted to the truth that they are living out in such a compelling way. This is what makes the saints the best evangelists. Holiness in the abstract, just like the abstract truths of chemistry, may seem dull and dry and boring. But the person who demonstrates heroic courage, the person who shows complete forgiveness, that’s attractive, that’s compelling, that’s beautiful. 

“Almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility,” St. Augustine said. And that is because humility is accepting the truth: the truth of who God is, and the truth of who we are before Him. This means, in turn, that the whole of Christian teaching is beauty. To be a Christian—and not just in name but in truth—is to live the most beautiful life one could possibly live on this earth. It is in Christianity that true beauty is to be found, because it is in Christianity that truth is to be found: the truth of who God is, and the truth of who we are before Him. What the world so often presents as beauty, is so often superficial; and sometimes it is not beauty at all, but actually ugliness dressed up in glamor. What Christ offers is the path to true beauty, which is the path of humility. And those who follow this path become saints. 

The question is, “Are we on the path of humility?” “Do we see ourselves as God sees us?” One of my favorite spiritual practices is one recommended by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises he recommends that before anyone sits down to pray, they take some time to consider how God our Lord looks upon them. Until we try to do this, we may not realize how hard this can be. Can we look God in the eye, even in our imagination? Do we dare to catch His gaze? Or are we afraid of what we might see? Perhaps we struggle with false humility, and so think we are unlovable in some way. We might be afraid, in that case, to encounter the gaze of a God who loves us, even in our brokenness. On the other hand, we might struggle with pride. We might be afraid, in that case, to encounter the gaze of a God who calls us to conversion, who calls us to give up a sin we may have been stubbornly clinging to. In either case, this is the first step on the path to humility: to look God straight in the eye and consider how He looks upon us. 

That’s something I’d recommend all of us doing this week: To take some time, even if it’s just five minutes, and consider how God our Lord looks upon us. In doing so, may we come to a greater acceptance of the truth of who God is, and the truth of who we are before Him. May we grow in humility, and so live a life of greater beauty, both in this world and in the world to come. Amen.