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The Gift of Fraternal Humility

June 2, 2022 5 min read
By Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
Acts of service

The “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed by Pope Francis, begins with this opening line: “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved.”  There is a not only a need for us to understand ourselves in fundamental humility, but there is a greater need for us to desire to serve others over ourselves – fraternal humility. The gift of fraternal humility comes to us in our ability to be in communion with others. We all have this gift presented to us through the grace of God. If justice is giving each person his or her due, then humility is, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, keeping oneself within their own limits. The gift of humility itself, whether fundamental or fraternal, means we are in a state of constant preparation for when the needs of others are presented to us.

We do not need to go and seek out those who can use our service. Over the course of any given week, we will have many people come before us who we can serve with something as simple as a comforting word. In our contemplation of our own needs, we can begin to determine what we can offer to those we encounter. As we enter most directly into the realm of character formation – that is, the development of virtues – we are drawn into service. When we reflect upon our practice of the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, we come to a clearer vision of our own limitations and recognize what we need to overcome them. It is through the practice of magnanimity that we reflect upon the greatness for which we were created, and the ability to assist others in fulfilling their own greatness. Humility, however, is often a difficult virtue upon which to build our character: as noted by C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

The development of fundamental humility and character formation can be explained through an old fable of a young person straining to answer the question, “When does the darkness end and a new day begin?” The young person employed this question to anyone who would listen, but to no suitable response. Finally, the young person sought out a wise man and asked, “When does the darkness end and a new day begin? Does darkness end and a new day begin when I see an animal on the horizon and can discern if it is a dog or a wolf?” The wise man shook his head: “No.” Exasperated, the young person gave up, pleading with the wise man for an answer. The wise man responded simply, “Darkness ends and a new day begins when we can look into the face of a stranger and see our brother or our sister.” So, too, with the development of humility.

From a virtuous character, the act of friendship is one of the foundations of fraternal humility; in turn, friendship increases the health and well-being of the individual. It is sometimes said that friends are better than family since we are able to choose our friends. All joking aside, Proverbs 17:17 shows the fraternal side of any humility, “A friend loveth at all times and a brother is born of adversity.”

Clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson notes that humility is the “precondition for learning and why it’s one of the highest moral virtues.” This view of humility is a part of the lens of givenness, which was the wisdom of Saint Pope John Paul II. In this writing, Pope John Paul II noted that through creation came gift – a gift of man and woman. It is God who has given each of us to the other in a wonderful aspect of communion. Pope John Paul II continued that it is through God’s trust in us that we are not only able to receive the other as gift, but we are able to “respond to it with a gift of [ourselves].” This is fraternal humility at its finest and a gift we can all carry with us each and every day for when we encounter someone in need.

Fraternal humility may not be as well known as some of the other virtues, cardinal or theological; however, humility is not only mentioned in the Bible itself, but St. Benedict’s Rule designates a very prominent position for humility. It is critical for us to understand that our gifts are not ours to hold onto, but rather are ours to give away to others in need. This gift of humility is no different, especially in a world that has become so polarized and where the divided life is more and more on the rise. If we are to move toward being a well-rounded people, it is important we harness the power, and gift, of all the virtues beginning with wisdom, which will raise us to the level of a poetic life. There is proof in the words of T.S.Eliot, “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire, is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.”

It is only through our interpersonal relationships that we can reveal our true gifts to another.

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