The Litany of Humility
Chapter 2 of the Humility series
I overheard two men talking about the Litany of Humility. On day one of a two-day men’s pilgrimage from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Manchester to the St. Joseph Shrine in downtown St. Louis, we had stopped for lunch in a park.
“That Litany of Humility is tough to get through,” one man said. I understood his feelings. Just a few months earlier, I began praying the Litany of Humility. It was tough. We are not wired for humility.
Humility for the Win
Humility is the most powerful tool in the arsenal of success. Success in this life and in attaining everlasting life with God in heaven.
As a tool for winning in this world, though, humility trumps a lucky birth, an excellent education, off-the-charts intelligence, or good looks.
"According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people tend to make the most effective leaders (that’s right, the most) and are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings.1"
Humility makes you likable, resilient, and flexible. We admire humble people. We enjoy spending time with the humble, just as we often regret the time spent around the proud.
Then, you would think that our culture, our families, and our churches would promote humility. But popular culture despises humility and humble people. Humble people don't make good TMZ stories. There's no TV series called "Humble Housewives of Franklin County."
Humble people are out of favor in our culture because our culture increasingly promotes fights like Don King promotes boxing matches. Fighting draws clicks and eyeballs.
Humility breeds sincerity which is usually uncontroversial. A compliment from a humble person is a genuine compliment. A compliment from a prideful person is called brown-nosing. Pride uses compliments to win favors—humility compliments to expose the truth.
This chapter aims to introduce and explore the Litany of Humility. It’s a simple, powerful prayer that many of us struggle to pray. Perhaps we struggle because this prayer is so countercultural. The Litany of Humility defies our cultural fascination with ambition, pride, reputation, and acceptance. With the grace of God, the prayer detaches us from what psychologists call “esteem needs” and replaces them with eternal needs.
I suspect some of you are familiar with the Litany of Humility. I am blessed with so many readers who are years ahead of me on this journey. You might want to skip this chapter because I probably won’t provide any insights you haven’t already discovered yourself.
But I suspect many Christians have not heard of this litany. I recently met two Catholic friends for lunch, and neither had heard of it. So if you are new to this prayer, I hope this chapter provides a powerful tool for your continued conversion.
Either way, be prepared for how the prayer can change your life.
At first, you might find the prayer difficult and off-putting. Upon first reading the prayer, most people are afraid it will make them masochists or doormats for others to walk on. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Anyone who receives the graces requested in The Litany of Humility will be more resilient, more successful, and better able to bounce back from adversity. In short, the virtues requested in The Litany Humility will make you "antifragile," to borrow Nassim Nicholas Taleb's wonderful word:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.2
Wouldn't you love to be like that? To not just survive shocks, but to benefit from them? To "thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors?"
The Litany of Humility, a 100-year-old prayer written by a Catholic bishop, actually makes you stronger and more resilient by freeing you from the psychological damage caused by events we consider unfair.
Whether these unfair events be illness, insult, accident, or intentional harm against us, the humble person becomes more robust because of them.
The best way to understand why each pleading in the Litany makes us stronger, let's first see the Litany of Humility in its entirety. Then, we will briefly examine each of the Litany's three parts:
Freedom from Our Desires
Freedom from Our Fears
Freedom from Needing to be Better than Others
The Litany of Humility
by Merry Cardinal del Val
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 falsely accused, 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, other may increase, and I may decrease, 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 become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
My fellow pilgrim said this prayer is “tough.” Do you agree?
Do you wonder if it’s safe to ask Jesus for these things?
When I first read the Litany of Humility, I was convinced it was asking for trouble. My mind didn’t comprehend the words as they were written. Out of fear and pride, my brain completely rewrote the prayer to go something like this:
From being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus From being loved, deliver me, Jesus . . .
I thought I was asking Jesus to let me be humiliated, despised, and rebuked! A sort of emotional self-flagellation. I had to read it daily for about a week before the actual petitions broke through my fears.
The Litany of Humility doesn’t ask for the circumstances it mentions; it asks to be freed from the fear of those circumstances. Or from the desire to experience them.
More importantly, the prayer asked Jesus to free us from the fears that prevent us from living as Christian men and women must live. The prayer frees us from the fear of spreading the Gospel to every corner of the earth. By God’s grace, it can free us from the fear of saying “no” to evil.
Humility Is Strength
If you have a Twitter account, you have probably seen the prayer requests for people facing termination for declining the Covid vaccine. Maybe you have lost your job for the same reason. However, those who said “no” to the vaccine overcame many fears and desires.
Thinking of those brave men and women, the Litany of Humility seems almost like a cop-out. It sort of asks Jesus to remove our fears so that such crucial moral dilemmas no longer hurt. Our moral decisions are no longer painful (though the consequences might be.) That wretched anticipation of something terrible goes away.
When Jesus grants us the graces requested in the Litany of Humility, our fear of picking up our cross and following Him every day is bound by His Most Precious Blood to the foot of the cross for Him to dispose of as He sees fit. No longer our concern.
A person free from those fears and desires becomes a moving mountain of truth. And praying for that strength is an act of humility itself.
I know many brave men and women who fought their fears, said “no,” and lost their jobs. Or were saved at the last minute by a minor miracle. But, on the other hand, I still don’t know if I have the strength to refuse. We are told God does not give us challenges without the grace to meet them, and if we face significant challenges, it means we abound with grace. But, perhaps the surest sign that I lack the strength and the grace is that I have encountered so few such challenges in my life. And while I should pray for the grace to overcome any challenge, I am pretty content with avoiding them.
This is why I pray the Litany of Humility right after I receive Holy Communion. I pray for the strength to welcome hard moral choices and the grace that makes such decisions easy. Yes, I am a wimp.
Overcoming Our Desires
The first set of graces involves overcoming our human desires. Specifically, these pleadings ask for relief from worldly acclaim and recognition desires.
Why would we want relief from these desires?
Because the desire for esteem, fame, glory, popularity, praise, honor, and others lead us into bad behavior and unhappiness.
Psychology and experience show us that we tend to move toward what we desire. Careful observers can tell if a person likes something by watching their pupils. Pupils dilate when looking at something desired and constrict when looking at something repulsive. Racecar drivers are advised not to look at the wall because we subconsciously steer toward the thing we're looking at. In short, we subconsciously move towards that which we desire. If we want fame and popularity, we will consciously and subconsciously behave in ways that bring us fame and popularity. Here's an example: Real Housewives.
You have likely seen some episode of the reality TV series "Real Housewives." (If not, count yourself fortunate.) The series involves a handful of shallow, rich women, supposedly friends, who compete for esteem, honor, attention, etc. Week after week, they scheme and plot. They live unimaginably luxurious lives, yet they are always miserable, offended, always wanting more, and willing to hurt their friends to get what they want.
The Real Housewives shows depict the opposite of humility. And the result: loneliness, anger, betrayal, disappointment, frustration, humiliation, gluttony, adultery, and divorce.
The characters in Real Housewives desire esteem, love, honor, praise, being preferred to others, being consulted, and being approved. But, unfortunately, their desire for these things of the world leads them into sin and despair as desire does, to a lesser degree, to all of us. In short, when we desire esteem, we tend to misbehave.
Keep in mind there is nothing wrong with being esteemed, loved, extolled, etc. And we should feel grateful and appreciative when we are praised, preferred, consulted, and approved. At least, we should feel thankful for these signs of respect when we earn them by virtuous acts.
As with money and wealth, the things themselves are not the problem, but our desire for them leads us into trouble.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being esteemed, we act only for the virtue of the action itself.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being loved, we can receive love openly and gratefully, knowing we do not deserve it. Freedom from desiring love from another makes their love a gift, not an entitlement. And this freedom frees us of the "need" to engage in disordered sex. It frees us from the pain and ignominy of unbalanced affairs in which one person's intentions are less than the other's hopes.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being extolled, we can accept adulations for the sake of those desiring to give them.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being honored, honors become honest. We know they are given, not because we sought them, but because others truly believe we earned them.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being praised, praises we receive are pleasant surprises, not just desserts.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being preferred to others, being preferred will no longer carry that tinge of guilt we often feel.
When, by the grace of God, we are freed from the desire of being consulted, we can give advice honestly and fearlessly. Only when we do not desire being consulted can we speak the truth when asked, for we will have no fear of being rejected for our honesty.