Humility of Heart
Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo
Translation by Herbert Cardinal Vaughn,
Archbishop of Westminister, England 1903
TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS
Thoughts and Sentiments on Humility Part 1
IN Paradise there are many Saints who never gave alms on earth: their poverty justified them. There are many Saints who never mortified their bodies by fasting, or wearing hair shirts: their bodily infirmities excused them. There are many Saints too who were not virgins: their vocation was otherwise. But in Paradise there is no Saint who was not humble.
1. God banished Angels from Heaven for their pride; therefore how can we pretend to enter therein, if we do not keep ourselves in a state of humility? Without humility, says St. Peter Damian, [Serm. 45] not even the Virgin Mary herself with her incomparable virginity could have entered into the glory of Christ, and we ought to be convinced of this truth that, though destitute of some of the other virtues, we may yet be saved, but never without humility. There are people who flatter themselves that they have done much by preserving unsullied chastity, and truly chastity is a beautiful adornment; but as the angelic St. Thomas says: "Speaking absolutely, humility excels virginity." [4 dist. qu. xxxiii, art. 3 ad 6; et 22, qu. clxi, art. 5]
We often study diligently to guard against and correct ourselves of the vices of concupiscence which belong to a sensual and animal nature, and this inward conflict which the body wages adversus carnem [Gal. 5,17] is truly a spectacle worthy of God and of His Angels. But, alas, how rarely do we use this diligence and caution to conquer spiritual vices, of which pride is the first and the greatest of all, and which, sufficed of itself to transform an Angel into a demon!
2. Jesus Christ calls us all into His school to learn, not to work miracles nor to astonish the world by marvelous enterprises, but to be humble of heart. "Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart." [Matt. 11, 29] He has not called everyone to be doctors, preachers or priests, nor has He bestowed on all the gift of restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, raising the dead or casting out devils, but to all He has said: "Learn of Me to be humble of heart," and to all He has given the power to learn humility of Him. Innumerable things are worthy of imitation in the Incarnate Son of God, but He only asks us to imitate His humility. What then? Must we suppose that all the treasures of Divine Wisdom which were in Christ are to be reduced to the virtue of humility? "So it certainly is," answers St. Augustine. Humility contains all things because in this virtue is truth; therefore God must also dwell therein, since He is the truth.
The Savior might have said: "Learn of Me to be chaste, humble, prudent, just, wise, abstemious, etc." But He only says: "Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart"; and in humility alone He includes all things, because, as St. Thomas so truly says, "Acquired humility is in a certain sense the greatest good." [Lib. de sancta virginit. c. xxxv] Therefore whoever possesses this virtue may be said, as to his proximate disposition, to possess all virtues, and he who lacks it, lacks all.
3. Reading the works of St. Augustine we find in them all that his sole idea was the exaltation of God above the creature as far as possible, and as far as possible the humble subjection of the creature to God. The recognition of this truth should find a place in every Christian mind, thus establishing-----according to the acuteness and penetration of our intelligence-----a sublime conception of God, and a lowly and vile conception of the creature. But we can only succeed in doing this by humility.
Humility is in reality a confession of the greatness of God, Who after His voluntary self-annihilation was exalted and glorified; wherefore Holy Writ says: "For great is the power of God alone, and He is honored by the humble." [Ecclus. iii, 21]
It was for this reason that God pledged Himself to exalt the humble, and continually showers new graces upon them in return for the glory He constantly receives from them. Hence the inspired word again reminds us: "Be humble, and thou shalt obtain every grace from God." [Ecclus. iii, 20]
The humblest man honors God most by his humility, and has the reward of being more glorified by God, Who has said: "Whoever honors Me, I will glorify him." [1 Kings ii, 30] Oh, if we could only see how great is the glory of the humble in Heaven!
4. Humility is a virtue that belongs essentially to Christ, not only as man, but more especially as God, because with God to be good, holy and merciful is not virtue but nature, and humility is only a virtue. God cannot exalt Himself above what He is, in His most high Being, nor can He increase His vast and infinite greatness; but He can humiliate Himself as in fact He did humiliate and lower Himself. "He humbled Himself, He emptied Himself," [Phil. ii, 7, 8] revealing Himself to us, through His humility, as the Lord of all virtues, the conqueror of the world, of death, Hell and sin.
No greater example of humility can be given than that of the Only Son of God when "the Word was made Flesh." Nothing could be more sublime than the words of St. John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word." And no abasement can be deeper than that which follows: "And the Word was made Flesh."
By this union of the Creator with the creature the Highest was united with the lowest. Jesus Christ summed up all His Heavenly doctrine in humility, and before teaching it, it was His will to practice it perfectly Himself. As St. Augustine says: "He was unwilling to teach what He Himself was not, He was unwilling to command what He Himself did not practice." [Lib. de sancta virginit. c. xxxvi]
But to what purpose did He do all this if not that by this means all His followers should learn humility by practical example? He is our Master, and we are His disciples; but what profit do we derive from His teachings, which are practical and not theoretical?
How shameful it would be for anyone, after studying for many years in a school of art or science, under the teaching of excellent masters, if he were still to remain absolutely ignorant! My shame is great indeed, because I have lived so many years in the school of Jesus Christ, and yet I have learnt nothing of that holy humility which He sought so earnestly to teach me. "Have mercy upon me according to Thy Word. Thou art good, and in Thy goodness teach me Thy justifications. Give me understanding, and I will learn Thy Commandments." [Ps. cxviii, 58, 68, 73]
5. There is a kind of humility which is of counsel and of perfection such as that which desires and seeks the contempt of others; but there is also a humility which is of necessity and of precept, without which, says Christ, we cannot enter into the kingdom of Heaven: "Thou shalt not enter into the kingdom of Heaven." [Matt. xviii, 3] And this consists in not esteeming ourselves and in not wishing to be esteemed by others above what we really are.
No one can deny this truth, that humility is essential to all those who wish to be saved. "No one reaches the kingdom of Heaven except by humility," says St. Augustine. [Lib. de Salut. cap. xxxii]
But, I ask, what is practically this humility which is so necessary? When we are told that faith and hope are necessary, it is also explained to us what we are to believe and to hope. In like manner, when humility is said to be necessary, in what should its practice consist except in the lowest opinion of ourselves? It is in this moral sense that the humility of the heart has been explained by the fathers of the Church. But can I say with truth that I possess this humility which I recognize as necessary and obligatory? What care or solicitude do I display to acquire it? When a virtue is of precept, so is its practice also, as St. Thomas teaches. And therefore, as there is a humility which is of precept, "it has its rule in the mind, viz., that one is not to esteem oneself to be above that which one really is." [22, quo xvi, 2, art. 6]
How and when do I practice its acts, acknowledging and confessing my unworthiness before God? The following was the frequent prayer of St. Augustine, "Noscam Te, noscam me-----May I know Thee; may I know myself!" and by this prayer he asked for humility, which is nothing else but a true knowledge of God and of oneself. To confess that God is what He is, the Omnipotent, "Great is the Lord, and exceedingly to be praised," [Ps. xlvii, 1] and to declare that we are but nothingness before Him: "My substance is as nothing before Thee" [Ps. xxxviii, 6]-----this is to be humble.
6. There is no valid excuse for not being humble, because we have always, within and without, abundant reasons for humility: "And thy humiliation shall be in the midst of thee." It is the Holy Ghost who sends us this warning by the mouth of His prophet Micheas." [vi, 14]
When we consider well what we are in body, and what we are in soul, it seems to me most easy to humble oneself, and even most difficult to be proud. To be humble it suffices that I should nourish within myself that right feeling which belongs to every man who is honorable in the eyes of the world, to be content with one's own without unjustly depriving our neighbor of what is his. Therefore, as I have nothing of my own but my own nothingness, it is sufficient for humility that I should be content with this nothingness. But if I am proud, I become like a thief, appropriating to myself that which is not mine but God's. And most assuredly it is a greater sin to rob God of that which belongs to God than to rob man of that which is man's.
To be humble let us listen to the revelation of the Holy Ghost which is infallible. "Behold you are nothing, and your work is of that which hath no being." [Isa. xli, 24] But who is really convinced of his own nothingness?
It is for this reason that in holy Scripture it is said: "Every man is a liar." [Ps. cxv, 2] For there is no man who from time to time does not entertain some incredible self-esteem, and form some false opinion as to his being, or having, or achieving something more than is possible to his own nothingness.
To know what our body is in reality, it will suffice for us to look into the grave, for, from what we see there, we must inevitably conclude that as it is with those decayed bodies, so it will soon be with us. And with this reflection I must say to myself: "Why is earth and ashes proud?" [Ecclus x, 9] "Behold the glory of man! for his glory is dung and worms; today he is lifted up, and tomorrow he shall not be found, because he is returned into his earth, and his thought is come to nothing." [1 Mach. ii, 62, 63]
O my soul, without going further to seek truth, enter in thought into the heart of thy dwelling which is thy body! "Go in and shut thyself up in the midst of thy house." [Ezek. iii, 24] Go in and look well around thee, and thou shalt find nothing but corruption. "Go into the clay and tread." [Nahum iii, 14] Wherever thou turnest thou wilt see nothing but putrefaction oozing forth.
7. In order to learn what we really are, let us examine our own conscience. And finding therein only our own malice and a capacity to commit every kind of iniquity, shall we not all say to ourselves: "Why dost thou glory in malice, thou that art mighty in iniquity?" [ Ps. li, 1] What hast thou of thine own, my soul, wherewith to glorify thyself-----thou who art a vessel of iniquity, and a sink of sin and vice? Is not all this self-glorification-----whether it be for thy bodily or spiritual gifts that thou buildest a reputation for thyself-----but vanity and deceit?
Oh, how true it is that every man is a liar, for one need have but little pride in order to be a liar, and. there is no one who has not inherited through our first parents something of that pride which they learned in listening to the deceitful promise of the serpent: "And you shall be all Gods." [Gen. iii, 5]
Again it may be said that every man is a liar in this sense-----that he not infrequently prizes earth more than Heaven, the body more than the soul, things temporal more than things eternal, the creature more than the Creator-----and it is for this reason that David exclaims: "O ye sons of men, why do ye love vanity and seek after lying?" [Ps. iv, 3] "The sons of men are liars in the balances." [Ps. lxi, 10]
But in reality a lie dwells essentially in that pride which makes us esteem ourselves above what we are. Whoever regards himself as more than mere nothingness is filled with pride, and is a liar. It is St. Paul's statement: "If any man think himself to be something whereas he is nothing, he deceiveth himself." [Gal. vi, 3]
Every time I esteem myself, preferring myself to others, I deceive myself with this self-adulation, and commit an error against truth.
8. It is enough for a virgin to have fallen once for her to lose her virginity; and for a wife to have been but once unfaithful for her to be perpetually dishonored; even though she may afterwards perform many noble works, still her dishonor can never be effaced, and the sting and painful memory of her shame and guilt must remain for ever in her conscience.
And thus, even though in the whole course of my life I have only committed one sin, the fact will always remain that I have sinned and committed the worst and most ignominious action. And even if I should live a life of continual penance, and be certain of God's forgiveness, and though the sin exist no longer in my conscience, still I shall always have cause for shame and humiliation in the fact that I have sinned: " My sin is always before me; I have sinned and done evil in Thy sight." [Ps. l, 5, 6]
9. What should we say if we saw the public executioner walking in the streets and claiming to be esteemed, respected and honored? We should consider his effrontery as insufferable as his calling is infamous. And thou, my soul, each time that thou hast sinned mortally thou hast indeed been as an executioner, nailing to the Cross the Son of God! Thus St. Paul describes sinners as "crucifying again to themselves the Son of God." [Heb. vi, 6]
And with this character of infamy which thou bearest within thee, dost thou still dare to demand honor and esteem? Wilt thou still have the courage to say: " I insist upon being honored and respected, I will not be slighted"? However much pride may tempt me to boast and seek esteem, I have ample cause to blush with shame when I hear the voice of conscience reproaching me for my ignominy and my sins, and not ceasing to reprove me for being a perfidious and ungrateful rebel against God, a traitor and an executioner who co-operated in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. "All the day long my shame is before me, and the confusion of my face hath covered me at the voice of him that reproacheth me." [Ps. xliii, 16, 17]
10. We must acknowledge that one of the five reasons why we do not live in this necessary humility is because we do not fear the justice of God. Look at a criminal, how humbly he stands before the judge, with lowered eyes, pallid face and bowed head: he knows that he has been convicted of atrocious crimes; he knows that thereby he has merited capital punishment, and may justly be condemned to the gallows, and hence he fears, and his fear keeps him humble, chasing from his brain all thought of ambition and vain-glory. So the soul, conscious of the numerous sins it has committed, aware that it has indeed deserved Hell, and that from one moment to another it may be condemned to Hell by Divine justice, fears the wrath of God, and this fear causes the soul to remain humble before Him; and if it does not feel this humility, it can only be because the fear of God is wanting: "There is no fear of God before his eyes." [Ps. xxxv, 1] Oh, cry to God from your heart: "Pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear." [Ps. cxviii, 120]
And this holy fear which is the beginning of wisdom will also be the beginning of true humility; for, as the inspired Word says, humility and wisdom are inseparable companions: "Where humility is, there also is wisdom." [Prov. xi, 2]