A Lesson in Humility


No matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs.
And on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.
-Michel de Montaigne, essayist (1533-1592)

When an Archbishop of Canterbury visits, it’s a big deal. He’s a big deal. He lives at Lambeth Palace, he crowns the kings and queens of England and ranks immediately after the princes of royal blood. He meets with popes, prime ministers and presidents, shows up at Davos.

Rowan Williams, the 104th prelate to sit on the throne of Augustine, happens also to be a brilliant thinker, writer, poet and translator, speaks three languages and reads at least nine. So when this international religious celebrity came to Saint Luke’s for the weekend, we prepared for a royal visitor.

He never showed up.

Instead, a man in a drab black suit walked in, his white hair floating above him like a cirrus cloud, his beard crawling ragged up his cheeks and down below his collar. In our (extensive) publicity we had shown him bedizened in fifty pounds of gold and regalia. He walked into the sacristy on Sunday morning carrying a simple white alb, not on a hanger but balled up and squashed atop his prayer book. Did we have a stole he could borrow?

I was momentarily confused. I thought of the woman fan who won a dinner with Mick Jagger and was ecstatic at the thought of dining with her rock idol. After the dinner, when asked by reporters how it went the woman said, “Well, he’s a nice enough man but he’s not Mick Jagger!”

As it turns out, Rowan Williams is a rock star–just not for the reasons you’d think. He was remarkably powerful because he was plainly humble. It wasn’t an act. He wasn’t slumming it in the States. He was just not interested in titles or preference or signs of authority. He had no charisma, in the worst sense of the word. When he preached, his words were straight from Proverbs: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (25:6). When he sat with people at lunch he listened with interest to their lives—he even helped one woman brainstorm a career change. When he left after two days with us, people all said the same thing. He astonished us with his wisdom and knowledge, but said nothing about himself. He was just so humble.

I thought after Rowan Williams left how wrong we are about humility. We still suspect that if we’re humble, people will think we’re insecure or small or dull. What I saw in the Archbishop was in fact the power of humility. When we can set aside our screaming need to be important, to be noticed and affirmed, we are free to be for others. And what I saw in Rowan Williams was how incredibly powerful a person becomes when they are free to be completely present to others. You’d think that person would be an exhausted doormat, and in fact they’re a star.

Still shaking my head, though. Guy like that with no razor and no comb. Unbelieveable.

8 Responses to A Lesson in Humility
  1. Art
    June 28, 2018 | 9:50 am

    Another gem. Grateful to you… and to start my day with this.

  2. Ann Koberna
    June 28, 2018 | 7:45 pm

    What an inspiration. It reminds me that Jesus focused on humility. The thing most frustrating to him was hypocrisy. Isn’t that interesting?

  3. Peter Bowen
    June 29, 2018 | 4:43 pm

    I was struck by his intellect and the fact he oozed tranquility in our hectic world
    His sermon fit his personality perfectly
    Peace be still or has he said “shut up”

  4. Rowena J Kemp
    June 29, 2018 | 6:13 pm

    Awesome article. He is indeed humble……

    June 30, 2018 | 12:48 am

    I was enchanted by this man. He spoke, I listened and understood, and later thought – if I called him up and asked if I could speak with him, he would give me a appointment and I would have been very comfortable as well as comforted.

    What a wonderful human being, and how fortunate we were at St. Luke’s to meet and know him.


  6. clark s johson
    July 1, 2018 | 2:24 pm

    Such a wonderful day , to be in the presence of this man at our wonderful parish. We are blessed in so many ways, especially our own clergy!!

  7. Don Burr
    July 1, 2018 | 6:53 pm


  8. Skip Hooper
    July 7, 2018 | 6:29 pm

    Somehow I ended up in a one on one discussion with the Archbishop during lunch. He was sitting alone at the time and screwing up my courage I sat down. What transpired was a 20 minute conversation as if we had met in a pub. Nothing heavy and theological- I wouldn’t dare take that plunge but I have no doubt he would have suffered me. No we talked about what’s going on in Lambeth, the House of Lords and his role as a cross-bencher and Brexit, challenges facing Magdalene, fund raising and building an alumni base in the US. I have no doubt he could and would talk to anyone. Rowen Williams is a indeed a true star without the trappings or the need for an entourage. A special person.

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