Editor's note: Humility is a misunderstood quality. If people realized that it breaks down barriers, reinforces valor, helps us when we feel powerless, and gives us a way to retrace our steps when we have made a mess of things, they might stop thinking of it as antiquated and recognize that these days, we need humility as much as we need fresh air. The quotes that follow offer a sense of the breadth of this quality. You can also enjoy this illustrated gallery of humility quotes.
Accessible through Beauty
"Emphasized by many writers on the topic of beauty and justice is the way in which beauty ‘de-centers’ the self. Elaine Scarry writes, ‘At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering.’ We cease to be the center of attention for ourselves, as perhaps we usually are; we become aware that our own vision is expanded through the beautiful thing we encounter."
— Susan A. Ross in For the Beauty of the Earth
A Basis for Accepting Nature as Our Teacher
"The earth we have before us now is still abounding and beautiful. … The health of nature is the primary ground of hope -- if we can find the humility and wisdom to accept nature as our teacher."
— Wendell Berry in Hope, Human and Wild by Bill McKibben
The Beginning of Sanctity
"Humility always radiates the greatness and glory of God. Through humility we grow in love. Humility is the beginning of sanctity."
— Mother Teresa in The Joy in Loving by Edward LeJoly and Jaya Chalika
A Breaking Down of Barriers
"Humility, which inspires us to kneel before God and next to our neighbor, emerges as an essential virtue. When someone asked Saint Bernard to list the four cardinal virtues, he replied, ‘Humility, humility, humility, and humility.’ Even as pride separates us from one another and God, humility breaks down the barriers between us. We become ‘a part of’ rather than ‘apart from’ a common body, the ‘one body with many members’ that Paul describes in his first letter to the church in Corinth."
— Forrest Church in Life Lines
A Building Block of Communal Existence
"Good ceremony makes room for all the dimensions of human experience in the hope that, together, we will discover something that transforms us. This is why I suspect that individuals can't create true ceremony for themselves alone. Ceremony requires that we work with others in the humbling give-and-take of communal existence."
— Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk
A Connection with Indwelling Divinity
"Practice humility, say the elders, and you begin to connect with an indwelling Divinity within you. The practice of humility is about dissolving self-centeredness. The person who has traveled beyond self-centeredness realizes he is nothing and yet is not separate from Divinity. One bows lower and lower to the mystery and beauty of this paradox. This bowing brings him or her true dignity."
— Jamal Rahman in The Fragrance of Faith
"The essence of humility is found in the advice, ‘Leave a little bit to God.’ Not everything in life is or should be up to you to do."
— Harold S. Kushner in Overcoming Life's Disappointments
Discovered in Service
"Jesus promotes a new discipleship of equals: when his followers argue over who is the greatest, he acts out a parable of humility, ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ And ‘so shall you be each other's servants.’ "
— Madonna Kolbenschlag in Eastward Toward Eve
"By doing what your lover wants, you transcend yourself. So it is with all sacred deeds. We give ourselves over to them, humbly offer ourselves as servants of something or someone greater. In so doing, we are transformed."
— Lawrence Kushner in Invisible Lines of Connection
"Realizing the blessing of aliveness expresses itself in humble, down-to-earth ways of service and taking care of details. And that is something that we can practice in any walk of life."
— David Steindl-Rast in Music of Silence by David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell
A Doorway to Truth
"The early ascetics of the Christian tradition were committed to radical discipline in the service of psychic transformation, because they knew well the truth that is surprisingly found through the low door of humility."
— Mary Margaret Funk in Humility Matters
"The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."
— T.S. Eliot in Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living by Roger Housden
Essential to the Spiritual Journey
"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home."
— Wendell Berry in The Unforeseen Wilderness
"God exalts the humble and humbles the proud."
— James Fadiman and Robert Frager in Essential Sufism
An Expression of Great Valor
"There never was a struggle or a battle which required greater valor than that in which a man forgets or denies himself."
— Meister Eckhart in Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing by David O'Neal, ed.
Freedom from Personal Ambition
"The word humility is perhaps not in tune with our times, but what it means is: don't claim any great work to be your own. It's very sound advice. For any great work done to help humanity, personal ambition has to be put out. These are the conditions: no hunger for personal profit, personal prestige, or personal power. These stand in the way of the highest results coming through us."
— Eknath Easwaran in How to End Suffering by Dolores Wood
"Humility is the principal thing that must be learned in the path of training the ego. It is the constant effort of effacing the ego that prepares man for the greater journey. This principle of humility can be practiced by forgetting one's personality in every thought and action and in every dealing with another."
— Hazrat Inayat Khan in The Heart of Sufism by H. J. Witteveen, ed.
"Humility is the missing ingredient, of course. People think of humility as some passive thing, but it's hard work. Being humble enough to leave yourself behind and enter into places. To leap out of yourself. And then to gradually start to care."
— John Hay in The Prophet of Dry Hill by David Gessner
A Help When We Feel Powerless
"Humility is also the virtue that helps us when the given of life we face is that of powerlessness. For instance, when our young-adult son is on drugs, we remain available to support his recovery and we look for support for ourselves, but our unconditional yes is to our powerlessness. That takes ego reduction and letting go, for which humility is the recipe."
— David Richo in The Five Things We Cannot Change
Insurance against Change
"If we were humble, nothing would change us -- neither praise nor discouragement."
— Mother Teresa in Soulsong by Thomas A. Forsthoefel
The Key to Wonder and Mystery
"Humility is the key to wonder. As humility grows, wonder deepens. You will see yourself as a temporary expression of God's infinite and timeless unfolding. Aware of your impermanence, you become brother and sister to all life. You realize the common fate of all beings and find in that realization a compassion that embraces all beings."
— Rami Shapiro in The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness
"To nurture mystery at this level means keeping a lively and open curiosity about reality and developing a new awareness of the limits of our knowledge. It means always beginning anew in the face of the untold richness of experience, and always being ready to draw on any source of wisdom and from different cultural traditions. It also means continuing humbly to venerate and remain enthusiastic before the astonishingly various aspects of reality which, though utterly beguiling, must always elude our most subtly devised attempts to represent it. This mystical approach is available to all of us without exception, as long as we are human and remain aware."
— Leonardo Boff in Ecology and Liberation
Learning from Everything and Everybody
"Learning is the very essence of humility, learning from everything and from everybody. There is no hierarchy in learning."
— Jiddu Krishnamurti in No Enemies Within by Dawna Markova
"I dedicate myself to humility in matters of the spirit, recognizing that at best I glimpse but an infinitesimal slice of the infinite Whole."
— Rami Shapiro in Minyan
"Really great people have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them but through them. And they see something divine in every other person and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful."
— John Rushkin in The Mystic Hours by Wayne Teasdale
The Most Important Virtue
"Abba Pambo believed that humility of the heart was the most important virtue in the spiritual life. To have a heart is to be governed inwardly by the commitment to humility, as well as to simply be humble. If we have humility of heart, then we can be saved because we are open to God; we can hear the Divine's guidance. Humility of heart allows us to know our woundedness, our passions, and our need for spiritual growth. How is your heart? Is it awake and humble?"
— Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Hours
One of the Three Best Things
"The three best things:
to be humble amid the vicissitudes of fortune;
to pardon when powerful;
and to be generous with no strings attached."
— Muhammad in The Knowing Heart by Kabir Helminski
Part of Life's Inexhaustible Sweetness
"There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility."
— Thomas Merton in A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton by Esther de Waal
A Quality of Attention
"Humility is above all one of the qualities of attention."
— Simone Weil in Seeds of the Spirit by Richard H. Bell and Barbara L. Battin
Radically Modeled by Children
"For Jesus, the child was a model of radical humility (Matthew 18:3-4). Those who wish to follow him will have to become as humble as little children. It is not only the humility and trustfulness of our childhood that we need to return to, but also our childhood sense of wonder and playfulness."
— Albert Nolan in Jesus Today
Recognition of Predecessors
"Humility says there were people before me who found the path. I'm a road builder. For those who are yet to come, I seem to be finding the path and they will be road builders. That keeps one humble. Love keeps one humble."
— Maya Angelou in Open Mind by Diane Mariechild
A Reconciling Attitude
"Humility is not one virtue among others, but an attitude by which we stand on the ground alongside things. From this position we can be reconciled with all things and begin a truly cosmic democracy."
— Leonardo Boff in Living the Wisdom of St. Francis by Wayne Simsic
A Remedy When We Err
" 'I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however; that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.'
— Mahatma Gandhi
A Response to Beings Giving Their Lives for You
"I am truly humbled when I realize that living beings died today so that I might continue to live. Today a potato, a tomato, some wheat, lettuce, rice, a banana, and blueberries lost their lives for my sake. Some of this food died on farms hundreds of miles away. But I must admit that I killed the tomato myself. I kidnapped it from its mother tomato bush. It had little time to say its final good-byes as it left the plant that nurtured and carried its weight ever since it was born. We had a quiet stroll from garden to kitchen. Then I sliced it up and ate it in a bowl full of lettuce. It is now me. Together, we'll plant tomato seeds next spring. Thank you, tomato. I'm sorry, tomato. I owe you my life, our life."
— Gregg Krech in Naikan
Taking One's True Measure
"Humility might be defined as ‘taking one's true measure’ and then not hiding from the truth of that realization. Humility, Sufis aver, is a state that is achieved, not through practice, but through awareness."
— James Fadiman and Robert Frager in Essential Sufism
"For the Hasidic masters, humility was the key quality that enables us to strike a balance between the yesh and ayin aspects of our being. With humility we gain a sense of perspective, so that we neither overestimate nor underestimate our own importance. … Each of us is a precious and a unique manifestation of the Divine One, essential to the unfolding of creation. On the other hand, we cannot be whole unless we also understand how to surrender ourselves so that we may experience our unity with all things."
— Estelle Frankel in Sacred Therapy
Taught with a Handful of Seeds
"To grow rice, you cannot be proud. The ancients taught their students with just a handful of seeds. They guided them through the seasons and, in so doing, taught them the way. Each of us needs humble diligence to make our lives ripen."
— Deng Ming-Dao in Everyday Tao
Viewing Others as Equal
"Humility is the disposition to view oneself as basically equal with any other human being even if there are objective differences in physical beauty, wealth, social skills, intelligence, or other resources. … It is the ability to keep one's talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, an understanding of one's imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem."
— Robert A. Emmons in How Can I Forgive You? by Janis Abrahms Spring
Without a Ripple
"Entering the water, he does not make a ripple.
Entering the forest, he does not disturb a blade of grass."
— Zen poem in Zen and the Beat Way by Alan Watts