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Light and life found in humiliation



Spirituality is a popular word, usually not closely defined. But it generally refers to a way of living that flows initially from an experience of the world described in religious or philosophical terms. Ignatian spirituality, for example, reflects the experience of Ignatius Loyola, and particularly his religious conversion and search for God's will. He spoke of this in terms of faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

Woman sitting on public bench with brown bag over her head (Credit: Francesco Carta fotografo)In Ignatian, as in other forms of spirituality, people who do not share the faith that underlay the original experience often adopt aspects of the way of living embodied in it. Ignatius' encouragement of reflectiveness is a case in point. He encouraged people to take time to attend to what matters most deeply in any enterprise, to weigh the range of desires and affective responses that they experience, and so to find some measure of inner freedom in their decisions. Many groups of people who do not share Ignatius' Christian faith have also found helpful his insistence on reflectiveness and the practices associated with it. These preserve focus and encourage review in the light of new circumstances.

Other aspects of Ignatian Spirituality have also been appropriated by non-Christian groups. His commendation of wonder and gratitude in response to the beauty and richness of the world around us, for example, has proved coherent with many other understandings of the world and our response to it.

Christians should not be surprised to find that distinctively Christian attitudes and practices are welcomed and adapted by people who do not share their faith. After all, Christians understand Christian faith to offer a full and rich experience of humanity, which does not compete with other forms of spirituality but completes them. They might expect that other aspects of Ignatian spirituality would also speak to the desires and discontents of our broader society.

For our culture the most challenging aspect of Ignatius' experience and of the way of living he commends may be the value he places on humiliation. To see any possibility and gift in humiliation will instantly be dismissed by many as masochistic or self abasing. But it is worth following Ignatius' argument through its roots in Christian faith. Like other more culture-friendly aspects of Ignatian Spirituality, his attitude to humiliation is built around his personal relationship with Jesus. He sees Jesus as the Son of God who has joined us in our human life and invites us to follow him as his way winds through his mission, to rejection, the humiliation built into a Roman execution, and to his rising to life.

The invitation to follow Jesus as friend means being prepared to suffer humiliation with him, and even to welcome it as a gift, knowing that this way leads through dying to life. In this Ignatius picks up the exuberant rhetoric of St Paul that echoes through Christian tradition, especially in the recurrent challenge of facing martyrdom. For Ignatius, as in the wider tradition, humiliation is not to be sought out nor romanticised. But when met, it can be seen as a gift.

Does this have anything to say to our society? Certainly, society itself has little to say about humiliation. Yet humiliation flourishes. In the flamings of social media humiliation is not merely a consequence but is often the aim. As in Roman executions campaigns of hatred set out to destroy the person, to strip them of human features, to dehumanise them, and to deprive them of a past and a future. There is no forgiveness, no restoration. Yet the victims and the executioners are left to live, often unaided, with the effects of humiliation. The cycle of humiliation suffered, resentment and humiliation inflicted continues.


"People more readily brave stigmatisation to share their own experience of humiliation and so to encourage compassion for others."


There are also many other forms of humiliation in Australian society: the pervasiveness and effects of abuse on racial, religious, gender and other grounds are increasingly recognised. Humiliation can also be experienced as shame by association. Family members of people who have perpetrated crimes, for example, and Catholics ashamed of the sexual abuse that has been part of their communal life, often feel humiliated.

There are also the ordinary experiences of humiliation that can accompany age, disability or difference. The child who grew up with a caliper after polio, people who find it difficult to see, people with hearing disabilities for whom the joys of table conversation are reduced to a vain attempt to make words out of Scrabble tiles, the terrors faced by people who cannot read or write and the intelligent elderly person who is treated as a child in a nursing home, are only a few of those who eat the daily bread of humiliation.

Humiliation is bitter to bear. Can meaning be found in it, as Ignatius suggested? He sought it in compassion, and particularly in the sense of privilege that one might briefly experience when moving from helpless observation of a friend's humiliation to sharing it. That is a rare case.

But might the experience of humiliation open the possibility of turning out to others instead of in on oneself? Might it seed compassion for other people in their humiliation, and perhaps lead in turn to a society more sensitive to the wounds that humiliation causes both to the humiliated and the bystanders? Some social trends point that way: for example people more readily brave stigmatisation to share their own experience of humiliation and so to encourage compassion for others.

Reflection of this kind takes us to deep and often dark places. But to do so and to find light there are the proper business of any spirituality worthy of the name.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image credit: Francesco Carta fotografo)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, St Ignatius



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Existing comments

Something many Christians forget or do not realise is that both Jesus and Ignatius were perfectly normal psychologically and also very, very brave. Christ calls everyone, as much as it is possible with their particular makeup, to be perfectly normal. Hence his roughly 30 years as a carpenter/builder in a normal family as a normal Jew. It was when the time was ripe that his brief, but epoch changing ministry began. Towards the end of his life the hatred he had engendered amongst the highest religious authorities, because of his opposition to their hypocrisy, greed and distortion of God's Law, came to a head and they got the brutal Roman governor to execute Jesus. He had always been mocked, but the treatment meted out to him by the brutal soldiery and the method of his execution were vile. You need to read the Bible to see Jesus' response, which went through the agony through the glory of the Resurrection. Ignatius was a very brave soldier and a bit of a ladies man. I see him as a bit of a dashing Guards officer before the spiritual experience which changed his life. His bravery, indeed all his talent, went into his ministry. I am not a follower of the Ignatian method, but I can see parallels to it in the Orthodox and Quaker spirituality which I feel drawn to.

Edward Fido | 12 November 2019  

I wonder if humiliation is a state of mind generated by the victimiser/humiliater or by the victim/humiliatee. Or is it but an individual response to injured pride/hubris. There would be no humiliation if the victimiser/humiliater were simply ignored as an irrelevance.

john frawley | 13 November 2019  

Humiliation and anguish go hand in hand and are a sort of cleansing, albeit a difficult prospect. Ignatian spirituality is robust in that it asks us to reflect unflinchingly. It takes some courage to do that. And I believe to be drawn to the humiliated and oppressed, and to recognise our own humiliation, is a gift to be cultivated.

Pam | 13 November 2019  

I think humiliation is, in essence, bullying 'to put you in your place',John Frawley. But that place is not the place God has designed for you, which is sometimes only discerned over a lifetime, but an artificial place in a pecking order often designed by the hierarchy in boarding schools, the military or prison systems et sim. Orde Wingate, the hero of the Burma theatre in WW 2, was, whilst at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, considered 'uppity' by his peers and chosen to 'run the gauntlet'. So he, five feet nothing, stripped naked, was to run between a double line of cadets, who would belt him with towels etc. where it hurt. Victims of the gauntlet often broke down and withdrew from their military careers. Wingate was made of sterner stuff. He was also a devout Christian. He walked slowly between the lines, looking everyone in the eye. No one did anything to him.

Edward Fido | 13 November 2019  

Thankyou Andrew for your take on humiliation - a quality we have come to expect from a devotee of Ignatius. It provides an enlightening instance of the many important and bedrock issues of Christian spirituality that sadly over the centuries have been clouded, if not buried, in destructive negativity - the distortions of such as 'humility', 'being childlike', 'suffering', 'fear' etc that in their debilitating negativeness have done little to promote the growth and development of our people, hence a wastefulness that is being corrected by such as your wholesome take on a common and often hurtful human experience.

Fr.Paul Goodland | 14 November 2019  

Your gift with words, Andy, alternates between pricking my conscience and making me cry. True humility requires courage, as I now recognise in the behaviour of a friend who has recently been racially snubbed at a Catholic school. At first I was outraged and urged him to speak up for himself, but then I realised in his silence that he somehow found the courage to discharge his responsibilities without allowing himself the indulgence of distraction. I suppose, as I once read in one of Pam's posts in these columns, that it takes a unique quality - termed 'surrender' by her - to be resurrected from the mire of negativity that attends humiliation. I am reminded, in illustration of this, that Pope Francis is currently having to live with and rise from such a crucifixion in the form of the onslaught directed against him by conservative Catholics.

Michael Furtado | 14 November 2019  

Fr Andrew, humiliation is part of our religious and cultural heritage both at a micro and macro level in Society. We live in a warped Constitutional Monarchy where historically Britain treated their outposts with arrogance. Whether Henry 8th had his knights dash Thomas A Beckett brains out on the altar at Canterbury or his ghastly parody of the crucifixion at Glastonbury, the victims were humiliated and killed. Cromwell subjected the Irish to extreme humiliation when he swept through the nation. The british navy tossed captives overboard alive and they were cheered in Parliament for the callous murders. Princess Margaret in 1962 referred to the Irish as pigs. It's a cultural disease based on inherited rank and privilege. Wild Things by Brigid Delaney is published by Fourth Estate and details the humiliation of freshers at Melbourne Uni Newman College. It happened when I was there in 1974. When Newman first opened in circa 1920 a student was drowned in the pool during initiations. In the time of Christ the chief priests and pharisees orchestrated the humiliation of Christ and his death at the hands of the Romans. Again he threatened their rank, status and power and we know the gruesome result.

Francis Armstrong | 14 November 2019  

I think of Jesus' humiliation every time I drink from 'His Chalice' at morning Mass, offered by a Eucharist minister who wears a 5 thousand dollar watch, and has 3 huge cars. I would like to refuse to drink from 'that' cup . Though, if I am to become truly as Jesus. No word, no object, no thought, no action has qualified. All in all. I cannot think of Jesus going to His Father any other way. As we are also to. By leaving all that is not His, as is not, that 5 thousand dollar watch on the wrist of a hand offering 'His Chalice'. What a smack in the face. And how far have we fallen?

AO | 14 November 2019  

Dear Francis, I admire the sentiments you post in these august columns. At times I also like to think that I follow, often unsuccessfully, in your commendably insurrectionist footsteps. Thankfully, history isn't your forte (and inessential to your argument) but, whatever the case, it was Henry II "what done Thomas a Becket in". Thanks also for the grand sweep of history that you cover! The Irish are indeed special: I was married to one of them for twenty memorable years.

Michael Furtado | 14 November 2019  

Michael Thank you for the correction. I apologize for naming the wrong monarch as responsible. I guess the point of my argument is that its always the entrenched Hierarchy that is responsible for dishing out the humiliations.

Francis Armstrong | 15 November 2019  

AO. I live in what is recognised as one of the wealthiest dioceses in the country. I too have received the Eucharist from some seriously wealthy Ministers of the Eucharist. One of the wealthiest of them also contributes enormous amounts of money to various charities and helps out many struggling parishioners without fanfare and unknown to many in the parish. Appearances don't always reveal the man but often engender criticism or jealousy. Jesus probably doesn't give a tinker's cuss about the value of the watch.

john frawley | 15 November 2019  

JF. Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, read it. And in it, closely, Bonhoeffer's critique of the rich young man, and his blindness.. A rich young man asks what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus teaches that trusting in riches can keep a person out of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, Jesus praises a poor widow for casting two mites into the treasury. Now why would he waste his time doing that? Luke 12:13–21. Through the parable of the rich fool, Jesus teaches the dangers of covetousness. The sermon on the mount, is nothing but gibberish, to the wealthy. And yet, this is the way. Moreover, being in God's Grace is not a monetary transaction. As saints such as St Ignatius, and St Francis, and hundreds of others who were from wealthy family's knew. Poverty is a Blessing from God. Truly. And represents less vestment to take off, when our time comes.

AO | 16 November 2019  

You can get a perfectly good watch under 100 dollars. I personally suggest waiting for the watches at Aldi, once on sale they go down to 3 dollar. To my eyes, there is nothing more unattractive nor less 'Jesus like', than a wealthy man or women who display their material top end possessions shamelessly. I would prefer a homeless person hand me Jesus' Chalice at Mass every morning. I truly would.

AO | 16 November 2019  

JF. ''Jesus probably doesn't give a tinker's cuss about the value of the watch''. Possibly. But I am certain what we put 'on ourselves'. We put on Jesus. And the way He went. So shall we. It's called the human condition. And any form of the pyramid scheme believed will make the journey easier. Is a lie.

AO | 16 November 2019  

“But might the experience of humiliation open the possibility of turning out to others instead of in on oneself?” Perhaps the only humiliations which, in and of themselves, bring beatitude are the humiliations “because of righteousness” or “on my account.” For the myriad of humiliations which can be inflicted upon a person, and observed by another, which are not especially inflicted “because of righteousness” or “on my account”, perhaps it is only in how the victim or observer responds that bestows one or more of Matthew’s nine beatitudes upon them. The victim or the observer can respond by being ‘poor in spirit’, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful or pure in heart, or by being peacemakers. In those cases, it might even be the observer’s response rather than the victim’s which draws down the greater blessing, paradox, the equal payment of the vineyard labourers and other manifestations of God’s ways being above man’s meaning that nobody can predict how God might assess a situation. Perhaps human charity is for the observer to encourage the victim (even those victimised for being prophetic) to respond for that circumstance in a mode which may bestow beatitude.

roy chen yee | 17 November 2019  

If poverty with sick and underfed children crying themselves to sleep with hunger and swollen bellies together with its soul-destroying human distress for all its victims is a blessing from God, AO, then you and I have very different Gods. I would consider, for example, that the relief of poverty through giving away some personal "riches" to the poor or caring for them as a volunteer is a far greater blessing. I presume your God, like mine, allows the use of a car - a far more expensive indulgence than a watch. Bonhoeffer was a great champion for the oppressed but to me some aspects of his theology are fanciful and highly selective in their appkication.

john frawley | 18 November 2019  

True enough, John Frawley. However, Bonhoeffer's concept of cheap grace precisely illustrates how much easier it is to dispense charity to the deserving poor than to analyse and overturn the structural and cultural conditions contributing to their wretchedness. For this he gave his life to others less inclined to adopt his radical thinking. I suppose in the end that both charity as well as justice are important and should never be used to mutually occlude. "Walk Humbly, Love Tenderly, and Act Justly" (Micah 6:8) seems to cover it all.

Michael Furtado | 20 November 2019  

I find the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary especially instructive in that the events of Jesus's suffering and the spirit in which he underwent them reveal how, with the exercise of faith, even the most outrageous injustices and humiliations can transform a self-pitying sense of victimhood and Sartre's absurdist verdict on life as a "futile passion" into redemptive potency. The key, I think, lies in Jesus's prayer in Gethsemani: "Father, not my will, but yours, be done." (Mk 14:36;Luke 22:42; Matt.26:39; Jn 6:38). Both Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola found joy and gratitude in being called to identify with the sufferings of Jesus - though this does not mean that they resigned themselves to a passive acceptance in the face of the suffering of others.

John RD | 22 November 2019  

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. James 1:9-10

James | 25 November 2019  

One of the problems we in the Western Church have is that we have tended to concentrate on the Passion of Christ, rather than his glorious death-defeating Resurrection. The Eastern Churches focus more on the latter. They should, they suffered horrendously under the Turks and Stalin. If they can't look forward to the glorious and triumphant Life Everlasting with God in Heaven, what do they have to look forward to? Oh for a ++ Michael Ramsey to explain it to this generation.

Edward Fido | 11 December 2019  

Every human emotion was experienced by Jesus. We are guaranteed this, as Jesus was both Human and Divine. Every emotion we experience, love, joy, despair, and the list goes on and on. Is being shared with Him. ''Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.'' Because We are in Him, as a fish is in water, and water is in a fish. He is in Us. But wait, He is much more. He IS Us. All men are one man. And this one man's name is Jesus.

AO | 12 December 2019  

I very much enjoyed reading this, but I wonder whether Ignatius' sense of humiliation was fundamentally different from our own. The meaning of 'humiliation' pre the 18th century was merely to be humbled. Only after 1757 did the sense of humiliation as being personally degraded, devalued and despised by others to the point of being cast out entirely from the society of our fellows emerge. Why such an exact date? The story can be read here: https://www.humiliationstudies.org/documents/evelin/Significanceof1757.pdf

Suzanne | 29 October 2020  

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