Perfect and Imperfect Humility

Humility is arguably the foundation upon which everything else in the Christian life rests. It is the beginning and end of wisdom, the highest virtue and yet the lowest status. Without humility no other virtue can be said to be true. If we are charitable but do so for our own ego then we are not truly charitable. If we compliment others but do so to win their favour then we are not truly kind. If we are pious and devout but parade our righteousness all over social media then we are not truly righteous.

Pelagius described this exceedingly well when he said:

Truly you must follow humility, not the kind that is displayed and simulated by bodily gesture or by subduing the utterance of one’s words but that which is expressed in the natural disposition of one’s heart. For it is one thing to pursue the shadow of things, another the reality. The pride which hides beneath outward signs of humility is made much more ugly thereby. For, by some means or other, vices are more unsightly when they are concealed behind an outward semblance of virtue.

But today I want to talk to you about the inner workings of humility itself rather than the importance of it in general. I want to take a closer look at what kinds of humility there are, when they are needed, and how they play out in our inner lives. We are going to root this conversation in the wisdom of my favourite book The Cloud of Unknowing.

The Cloud describes two kinds of humility which it calls perfect and imperfect. Now, to be clear, this distinction is not the same as what Pelagius was describing above. Imperfect humility is not fake humility, it is simply not yet complete. In fact, The Cloud is clear that we all must find and understand imperfect humility before we can fully embrace and live into perfect humility. So, let us not think we can skip right to the end. There are no shortcuts on the spiritual path.

The two kinds of humility are basically this: imperfect humility is to realize and focus your attention on how weak and imperfect you are as a human being while perfect humility is to focus instead on God’s perfection. The first kind of humility is a looking inwards, a self realization. The second kind of humility is a forgetting of self entirely.

The Cloud spends a good amount of time emphasizing the importance of self realization, for this is how we obtain imperfect humility and without it we will not be able to move beyond it into what is perfect. Seeing as the book was written in the middle ages it recommends confession and penance as the means to do this inner work of self understanding, and those are still valid paths today. I would personally recommend a combination of fasting and learning the enneagram, for with those two practices you will come to know yourself in your body and your mind – in your earthly nature and your incorporeal nature, which together form your full self.

But, we must not think that self knowledge on its own will make us perfectly humble. In fact, it can easily become a twisted kind of pride. What Pelagius described above as ‘vice concealed behind an outward semblance of virtue.’ If our spiritual life is based solely on our own condition then it is actually still selfish because it is focused on the self. It is very easy to make the contemplative life all about us and how much progress we’ve made. It is easy for humility to become a badge of honour.

This is the reason The Cloud gives for why people need to know about perfect humility, and why I hope you can take this message to heart. It says:

Just knowing about perfect humility will in itself make you more humble. For I often think that ignorance of humility’s two degrees occasions a good deal of pride. It is just possible that a little taste of what I’ve called imperfect humility might lead you to believe that you are already humble.

Not knowing about perfect humility can also become another sort of danger. If we spend too much time in imperfect humility we may lose sight of the fact that we are loved by God, created in blessed goodness, and are capable of living truly good and holy lives. Many religious people spend so much time thinking about how they are sinful and don’t deserve to be in God’s presence that their self knowledge becomes a kind of ignorance and they forget the image of God in which they are created.

This leads to all sorts of problems.

Humility is never self loathing, it is instead, as The Cloud describes “nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are.” It is equally prideful to become obsessed with our own worthlessness as it to be obsessed with how great we are. If we are trying to view ourselves in a forced light as either amazing or awful then we are not seeing truthfully. The truth of our condition is typically less extreme than we would like to imagine, and whatever our condition is, the medicine our soul requires is the same.

Julian of Norwich talked about this phenomenon when she said:

When we have fallen through frailty or blindness, then our courteous Lord touches us, moves us, and calls us; and then wants us to see our wretched sinfulness and humbly acknowledge it. But he does not want us to stay like this, nor does he want us to be greatly preoccupied with self accusation, nor does he want us to be full of our own misery; but he wants us swiftly to focus our thoughts on him; for he stands all alone and waits for us, sorrowing and lamenting, until we come, and he hastens to have us with him; for we are his joy and his delight, and he is our salve and our life.

So, dear sisters and brothers, if you wish to do the work of becoming humble, I pray you will remember both imperfect and perfect humility. I pray you will do the work of being honest about what is inside of you so that you can leave yourself behind and rest fully in God. For God is perfect and the one who sets their gaze on Heaven and not on themselves is the one who is truly humble.

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