It’s been a few months so far, but we are still early into 2021. Perhaps right now we all have a pretty good idea about how well we will actually stick to those resolutions we made as we move further into the year. Some of us are right on track while others are struggling and might be ready to throw in the towel at this point. Either way, to recognize and be grateful for legitimate success or to admit defeat at a goal (or a list) that ended up being too lofty takes a bit of humility. Maybe your goal was to grow in humility. We can all agree that the virtue of humility is something we as Christians should each be working on regardless of what time we are in the year, and there is a good devotion that could help us in this most worthy of tasks – the Litany of Humility. This devotion has been in my prayer tool belt for a number of years now, and while I am still very much a working progress it has helped me target those little actions and thoughts each day that I normally missed and which stunted my soul in the past while trying to develop not only humility but all other virtues as well. It has definitely given me chaff to burn in the fire of confession! Along these past years this devotion has continually made my soul open to the Holy Spirit’s work in my life, and He provided insight into my areas of needed growth and conversion. While there are many things the Third Person of the Trinity as gotten me to learn, I wanted to provide 7 of them here and suggest this devotion to all of you so that the Spirit might do the same for you especially since Lent is now not too far beyond the horizon.
First, here’s a little information about this devotion.
The Litany of Humility has been commonly attributed to Servant of God Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930), who served the Holy See as Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope St. Pius X from 1903 to 1914. I am unaware of when and how it first came about as a popular devotion for Catholics, but according its Wikipedia page (take it as you will), a priest, Fr. Charles Belmonte, who was inspired by the writings of the great cardinal, included it in a collection of prayers titled “Handbook of Prayers” in 1986. The upcoming Lenten time of penitence and sacrifice makes the Litany of Humility an ideal devotion for Catholics seeking to clean house and strip their souls of every thing that keeps them from truly loving God and neighbor even down to smallest level of imperfections. The Daily Roman Missal published by the Midwest Theological Forum reports that Cardinal Merry del Val would often pray the Litany after offering Holy Mass. I have provided the text of it below:
The Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
With all that said, here are 7 things I’ve learned from praying the litany of humility:
1: The Litany of Humility is a little bit scary at first – It should be.
I remember when I first made the decision to make the Litany a part of my regular devotional life during Lent 2016 back when I was in college. I recited the prayer, and as I made my way through it I began to feel a little bit intimidated at what it was asking me to give up and what it was asking me to not be afraid of. Even though I did not take myself to be an egomaniac, like most of us I did not mind being honored every now and then, and I appreciated when some of my friends at the Catholic Center consulted me about an issue they were having (I was one the center’s co-director at the time). Also, who wouldn’t be afraid of being despised and ridiculed? I understood not wanting to being regarded highly in the opinion of the world, but if there’s some good prize or award up for grabs, I definitely wanted to be chosen for it (especially true for scholarships during those undergrad years). And what in the world was wrong with wanting to be loved? These internal apprehensions mounted up upon praying the Litany for the first time, but in the back of my mind I recognized its value and what it was seeking to do in me. In reality all these were actually signs of my need for more humility. I soldiered on.
But take another took at the Litany of Humility, and you will see that it is certainly no joke. It does a good job of touching on all those small treats we might save for our egos like I did. We relish the opportunity to be admired for our successes. We have a desire to be congratulated and respected. At least sometimes we want others to come to us for advice especially in areas that we are experts in. Now at a basic level the simple hope that others will appreciate the good works we do is not a bad thing in itself. Neither is the mere desire to be loved by another an evil by itself, either, for we should, in fact, desire that God, first of all, loves us especially at our worst, and there’s nothing wrong with desiring that our parents or children love us back. Moreover, there are times that we want certain others to see the good in what we do because it is often the case that the good which was done was for their benefit out of our love for them. Plus, we all have the innate desire both to obtain excellence in the completion of a task and to admire excellence on display from others; that’s how God, Who is Excellence itself, made us. Thus, the issue that the Litany is seeking to address in us is something more selfish and turned-in-on-itself away from God and neighbor than the legitimate desire for the good of excellence, and the “desire of being preferred to others” hints at it. But the Litany is scary because we like being approved, praised, and consulted, and we hate being suspected, humiliated, and despised, and we would gladly take the chance to be esteemed, preferred, and chosen. At first glace, it appears that the Litany’s vision of humility and thus holiness is one in which good things and circumstances are to be taken away permanently and bad ones preferred in their place for the sake of spiritual growth. It also seems to want to get the believer to favor losing things for its own sake to gaining them. The Litany looks to take us from a situation in which we are safe, protected, and provided for (example: being a popular priest or a well-regarded parishioner) and expose us to the elements (the consequences of contentious sermon topics and tough causes to take up at the parish) all while willingly playing the second fiddle. Who wants that? Nevertheless, keep reading this list and praying the Litany afterwards, and you will see what the Litany is getting at.
2: The buck should stop at God, not you.
“O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.” Appropriately, the prayer starts off with a call to Jesus Who is the Model of all humility, for Jesus is the Incarnation of God Himself in the flesh. If there is anybody that could boast about internal greatness, it is the all-good and perfect God who made heaven and earth. Yet, He humbled Himself and became man out of love for us that He might save us. Additionally Jesus, being God, could have done anything He wanted in His freedom. There are plenty of instances in the Gospel where Jesus could have manifested His power for His own glory and bring His persecutors to their knees. Instead, He waited thirty years just to begin His ministry, and when He did He only sought to accomplish the Father’s will not His own (“Not as I will but You Will”; Matt. 26:39). For Jesus and the mission He had been given, the buck stopped with the Father not Him even when it cost Him everything.
We as humans desire to be liked, and thus we seek to avoid negative responses and contributing to others developing hostile attitudes towards us while, on the other hand, Jesus and the authentic living and spreading of the Gospel have not always received great reception. Now I am not saying we should give people something they should despise us for in terms of unchristian-like conduct. Rather, we should not carry within us a spirit of fear that we might not be liked that will keep us from spreading the Gospel because if we have that fear, we might never live or spread the message of Christ to a world that desperately needs it. This type of fear will stunt your growth as a Catholic living out of the vocation God has called you to live for the sake of the salvation of souls. Fear of mistreatment, just like the desire for the best treatment, will have the buck stopping at you when it should stop at God. Your fear will stop God from being Feared. In this case the believer turns into the center of attention depriving God of His due praise and depriving others of their need of being led to the Lord. The buck stops with the believer when it should stop at God. If you want people to praise you, then God will not be praised. If you desire to be glorified among men, then God will not be glorified among those He has created. This is a deadly problem for both you and others, because no one involved will be able to receive the God we all need. The only purpose of using any gifts of self-attraction is to lead those who come to you to God, for people ultimately need God, not you. As the Baltimore Catechism informs us on the purpose of life and the end (destiny) of man, we exist to love God and to serve Him in this life so as to be happy with Him in the next.
3: Humility and attachment to God makes us freer.
I have found in praying this devotion that when we begin to let go our preoccupations with wanting to be liked (while not condemning honors if we receive them) and work to overcome fears for the sake of the Gospel we actually become freer because we then begin the next step of attaching ourselves to the God Who is Freedom itself. You then can speak the truth without worrying about ridicule. You can do the will of God in each moment and throw yourself at His grace and mercy with holy abandonment without letting fear of inconvenience stuff out your zeal. You do things because you’re about the Gospel and God’s Church, and it’s what you’re supposed to do.
4: The two of the biggest obstacles that keep the believer from being totally attached to God and living the Gospel are the desire and the fear of earthly things.
This devotion will help lead to the gradual emptying of the soul of two of the biggest things that clutter it up – desire and fear of earthly things. Fleshly desires choke out the soul like the thorns of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:7), and fears of not preserving the things of this world keep it from completing the painful work of rising out from that which suffocates it. In our spiritual lives we should all strive to empty out ourselves of everything thing keeps us away from loving God and loving others for their salvation and ask Him to replenish our souls with nothing but His grace to help build up within us lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity so that we might become worthy of the promises of Christ. From every thing that is opposite to these noble things, let us ask Jesus to deliver us!
5: If you have a disordered desire for people to love, praise, or consult you and they fail to do so, you will start to resent people for no good reason.
The first part of this prayer serves as a warning to the believer of an inordinate desire for human praise; “inordinate” in the sense that the desire for human praise runs in excess and disorders the person from his or her proper duty to render unto God due praise and love neighbor for the sake of God. A danger that can arise in desiring that others have a high esteem of you lies in the temptation to develop within oneself resentment towards others for not giving you the praise, honor, or preferential treatment “due” to you, especially after the preforming of good actions. This is a disordered mindset in the moral and spiritual life for at least two reasons. First, it breaks the First Commandment by assuming that created beings owe you praise and that their withholding it from you is an injustice when God is the only One that is truly owed praise. As Catholic teaching informs us, it is a sin to refuse to praise the True God because the offender is refusing to give what belongs to Him, thus it is an injustice committed against Him. In this attitude the believer tries to usurp God of His rightful place as the recipient of human praise. Second, it can also lead the believer to breaking the Fifth Commandment. We know from the Gospel that Jesus extends the Fifth Commandment to include even being resentfully angry against others while refusing forgiveness and reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26) in a radical call for us to live a good moral life pleasing to God such as fulfilling the Second Greatest Commandment given by Christ to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). If you have an inordinate desire for people to praise you and they fail to do so, that could lead you resent them and fail to show charity towards neighbor.
6: This prayer is about disordered desires not pleasant circumstances.
Bottom line. This prayer is about rooting out disordered desires and attachments and not happy circumstances in which others might congratulate you or give you props. If any praise, recognition, or awards do come our way, we should accept them humbly and return a sincere “Thank you. I appreciate your kind words,” but we should not pine for these instances insistently because we want people to heap praise upon us whether we deserve it or not (Read number 2 again for the issue with this). Rather, we know earthly honors will not ultimately fulfill us, so “let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31), not in himself.
7: It is okay to be small.
The relinquishing of the desire for earthly praise and honors has a deep connection to the spiritual life as the prayer goes on to request that others become “holier than I” provided the believer only becomes as holy as God desires him or her to be in this life and the next. For we know that some saints have achieved greater levels of sanctity than others while on earth and rank higher in heaven in the order of grace. Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary being the Mother of God and St. Joseph being her earthly spouse and the foster father of the Lord Himself vs. the other noble saints; obliviously these two are the two holiest persons in heaven besides the Persons of the Trinity (Who infinitely surpass all them and all creatures) because of their close relationship to and work for Jesus in the divine plan of salvation history. In addition, think of St. John the Baptist being the greatest of all the prophets because he was the Forerunner to Our Lord, the Messiah. However, even with these ranks of holiness, there is neither fighting nor envy in heaven because all received precisely the same prize, the Beatific Vision, God Himself Who satisfies every desire, hope, and existence perfectly. This is the model we all have to keep in mind when we come across this part of the Litany, which end the whole prayer.
Overall: Gaining humility is a gradual series of skirmishes against the self, and the battle still rages on!
The Litany has helped me battle a number of personal imperfections within myself in regards to my lacking in humility (some of those battles are still ongoing). May the Holy Spirit through this Litany and all the rest of your prayers begin to show you areas of your own life needing conversion to humility and sanctification. May God bless you.