Not only human beings and civilizations have a history, but so do words. Words have a life-span. They come into existence, attain a level of usage (some even become buzz-words), and then even can pass into oblivion. Also, some words can be resurrected and be given a new understanding as circumstances change.
All of this is by way of introducing two words which have fallen into disrepute in recent time. However, the bad reputation these words have acquired is a loss to us all. These two words -- virtue and humility -- occupy an important place in our readings.
Today we find ourselves speaking more about values than virtues. There are countless seminars on values training and values clarification (which has done serious damage to much of religious education). We all have values. What we need to do is to discover our values. Unfortunately, we are seldom asked to evaluate our values. For it is a modern heresy to hold that one can have a wrong value or a lesser value when compared to other values.
A key dogma of modern thinking is the acceptance of all values as being of equal merit as long as they are freely and knowingly chosen. Upon reflection it would be hard to think of a better way to insure moral relativism and moral barbarism. Even Hitler would be praised since his values were freely and knowingly chosen by him.
Unfortunately, those in concentration camps were not extended a voice of veto. In the final analysis, when values come into conflict we moderns can do one of three things: reduce morality to private choices (like abortion); conflicts are settled by use of raw power; or differences are settled by special interests which can scream the loudest.
The use of the word virtue may help us in our present confusion if we have the humility (more about this troubling word later), to learn from the past. What do we mean by the word virtue (arete, virtus, trigent)? We can say that virtue is the excellence or strength of the whole person in the practice and achievement of the act of human well-being. Virtue is the excellence of character by which we human beings become more human.
Virtue is something living and beautiful which helps us to realize our human potentials. Hence, virtues are those excellences which flow from our human nature which we all share by reason of being human. In developing these virtues (truth, justice, patience, kindness, gratitude, etc.) we bring to actuality those powers which enhance our life and community life.
We Christians hold that virtues -- excellence of the whole person - move us to God. For without relationship with God our virtues become splendid vices or causes for self-boasting. Apart from God, our virtues become corrupt. Hence, among the most important virtues is that of humility. Clearly humility is not self-hatred or a call to inferiority. The virtue of humility is an invitation to truthfulness.
The writer of Zephaniah says, "But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly." St. Paul minces no words to the Corinthians: "Not many of you are wise.., not many are influential.., not many well-born... God singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong."
And in the Sermon on the Mount we read: "Blessed are the lowly; they shall inherit the land." In all of these there is no self-hatred or denial of gifts. There is a profound sense of truth: we are creatures made in God's image.
To be humble is to acknowledge how much we have received and how much we have to offer others. Far from being self-loathing we are called to give God thanks by sharing His good gifts. The truth and humility of our condition is this: we can acknowledge our gifts because they point to the Father who gives good things to all His children. We are needful and we have been given.
Two important words: virtue and humility. Their truth is found by the way we live.