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 18
79. Truly, no one cares to be thought proud, for even according to worldly ideas the greatest blame that one can give to a man is to say that he is proud. And yet few try to avoid the very thing they would least desire to be accused of by others.
If we feel inward satisfaction when we are given credit for a humility which we do not possess, why do we not endeavour to acquire that with which we like to be credited? If we seek after the vain shadow of humility, it means that we care very little for the substance of this virtue. A man who would be contented with the appearance of virtue without trying to acquire it in reality, would resemble a merchant who valued false pearls and gems more than real ones.
O my soul, perhaps thou too art among those who, being proud, resent the accusation of pride and desire to be thought humble! This would be lying to thy own conscience, lying to God, to His Angels, and to men. As St. Paul says: "We are made a spectacle to the world, and to Angels, and to men." [1 Cor. iv, 9]
It is a shameful thing for us to wish to appear humble when we are not so. There are certain occasions when in our interior acts we must practice humility; but we must watch over ourselves carefully, so that in thus practicing it we may not desire to be thought humble. And that is why hidden acts of humility are safer than exterior ones. But if there is pride in wishing that the humility we have should be recognized and known, what measure of presumption would there not be in wishing to be thought humble when we have no humility? Let us beware lest the words of Holy Writ be applicable to ourselves:
"There is one that humbleth himself wickedly, and his interior is full of deceit." [Ecclus xix, 23]
80. The more we reflect upon this great virtue of humility, the more we should learn to love and honour it. It is natural to the soul to love a good which it recognizes as such, and there is no doubt that we shall love humility when we recognize its intrinsic value and the good that comes of it. Our love of what is good is measured by our knowledge of it, and in the same measure that we love we desire to obtain it, and in the measure that we desire it we embrace the most proper and efficacious means of acquiring it. It was thus that the Wise man acted in order to obtain wisdom. He loved her, desired and prayed for her, and applied his whole mind to possess her, so great was the esteem in which he held her: "Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me, and I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her." [Wisd. vii, 7]
It is necessary to thoroughly understand this doctrine because we shall never succeed in acquiring humility unless we really desire to obtain it; nor shall we ever desire it unless we have learnt to love it, nor shall we love it unless we have realized what humility really is-----a great and most precious good, absolutely essential to our eternal welfare. Consider for a little while in what esteem you hold humility. Do you love it? Do you desire it? What do you do to acquire it? Do you ask this virtue of God in your prayers? Do you have recourse to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin? Do you willingly read those books that treat of humility, or the lives of those Saints who were most noted for their humility? "There is a certain will," says St. Thomas, "which had better be called the wish to will than the absolute will itself"; [3 part., qu: xxi, art. 4] by which it seems that we can will a thing and yet not will it. Therefore examine yourself and see whether your desire for humility be only a passing velleity, or really in your will.
81. To be humble, we must know ourselves; and this self-knowledge is difficult, but only by reason of our pride, the principal effect of which is to blind us. Therefore to acquire the virtue of humility we must first fight against and subdue its enemy pride; and in order to overcome it-----having prayed to God, with the valiant Judith: "Bring to pass, O Lord, that his pride may be cut off"-----three other things are necessary.
Firstly, in meditating on the subject, we ought to feel hatred and abhorrence of our pride, because we can never get rid of all the ills that affect our soul as long as we continue to love them. Secondly, we must make a firm resolution of amendment at all cost, because in whatever light we consider it, it will always be to our advantage. Thirdly, we should at once endeavour to uproot all our habits of pride, especially those which are most predominant, for it is well known that the longer we allow a had habit to grow, the stronger it will become, and the greater will be our difficulty in eradicating it: "And I said, now have I begun." [Ps. lxxvi, 11]
We must not lose heart or be discouraged but commend ourselves to God's mercy, this being above all things most necessary: "And He will do it." [Ps. xxxvi, 5] It is through God's grace alone that we can overcome our numerous evil passions, and it is through Him alone that we can hope to subdue our pride. Let us therefore cry unto Him with King David:" My mercy and my refuge: my support and my deliverer. My protector: and I have hoped in Him who subdueth my people under Him." [Ps. cxliii, 2]
82. Is it not well to apply ourselves to eradicate a fault, when we know that by so doing our hearts will be gladdened? And therefore is it not true that once our pride, which is the cause ot so many of our troubles, is subdued, we shall be far happier?
We feel a natural aversion towards the proud, and we cannot love them; but may not this instinct of aversion which we have towards the proud be felt by others towards ourselves? For it is true that "Pride is hurtful always." [Ecclus x, vii] Sometimes we lament that others do not love or esteem us. Let us examine the cause, and we shall find that it proceeds from our' pride. On the other hand, do we not see the affection that is generally shown towards the humble? Every one seeks their company, everyone places confidence in them, every one wishes them well. This would be the case with us if we were humble; and what happiness we should feel in loving and being loved by all! It seems at first as if this were a question of human respect; but it is inspired by charity, and comes from God and from a desire to resemble Him. Humility is clad in the same garb as charity, which, St. Paul says, "is patient, is kind, envieth not, is not puffed up, is not ambitious." [1 Cor. xiii, 4] And it is easy to invest humility with the same virtuous intentions as charity.
83. Pride is the root of all our vices, so that, when once we have uprooted it, those vices will little by little disappear also. This is the true reason of our having to accuse ourselves of the same sins over and over again in our confessions, because we never confess that pride which is the root of them all. We do not wonder when we see the fig-tree bearing its figs year after year, and the apple-tree its apples. No; because each tree bears its own fruit. In the same way pride is rooted like a tree in our hearts; and our sins of anger, envy, hatred, malice and uncharitableness and rash judgments of others which we confess over and over again are the fruit of pride; but as we never strike at the root of this pride these same sins, like clipped branches, ever sprout out anew. Let us endeavour to eradicate pride thoroughly, following the advice of St. Bernard: "Put the axe to the root" [Serm. 2 de Assum.] and then we shall have great joy and consolation in our own conscience.
We must regard pride as the king of all vices and follow the wise advice given by the king of Syria to his captains: "You shall not fight against any, small or great, but against the king only." [3 Kings, xxiii, 31] Judith too, by killing the proud Holofernes, conquered the whole Assyrian army. And David triumphed over all the Philistines by slaying the proud Goliath; and in like manner we shall also triumph, because by conquering pride we shall have subdued all other vices.
King David erred in one thing, for knowing Absalom to be the chief of the rebels he yet commanded that he should neither be killed nor hurt: "Save me the boy Absalom." [2 Kings, xvii, 15] Alas, how many imitators he has found! We know full well that pride is the chief rebel among all our passions, but notwithstanding it is the one which we seem to respect the most, and which we almost fear to offend displaying even a tendency to encourage it.
84. There are certain sins we seldom or never mention in our confessions, either because our conscience is too easy and elastic or perhaps because we do not really desire to amend. Pride is one of these sins; there are but few who accuse themselves of it; but those who really wish to amend their lives should make it a special subject of their examen and confession, so as to learn to hate it and repent of it; and to make firm resolutions of amendment in the future.
Whoever desires to make a good confession should not only confess his sin, but also the reason and occasion of the sin; saying for example: "I accuse myself of having taken pleasure in impure thoughts, caused by my want of custody of the eyes, too great freedom of speech, and frivolous behaviour." And in the same way we must confess our sins of pride, saying: "I accuse myself of having been angry and annoyed with those around me, and the sole reason of my anger and annoyance was my pride. I accuse myself of having envied and even of having taken what belonged to others, only to satisfy my pride and vanity. I have also spoken with contempt of my neighbour and this again because of my pride, that can bear no one to be thought superior to myself." Continue to examine all your faults in the same way, and you will find the truth of the inspired words:
"The spirit is lifted up before a fall"; [Prov. xvi, 18] and "Before destruction the heart of man is exalted." [Ibid. xviii, 12] To subdue our pride it is well to mortify and shame it by these accusations which are also acts of virtuous humility, but it is most necessary too to insist upon our own amendment for "What doth his humbling himself profit him that doth the same again?" [Ecclus xxxiv, 31]
It is not enough to confess our sins, Holy Writ says, but it is necessary also to amend them so as to obtain God's mercy: "He that shall confess his sins and forsake them shall obtain mercy." [Prov. xxviii, 13]
85. Humility of heart, St. Thomas teaches, has no limit, because before God we can always abase ourselves more and more even unto utter nothingness, and we can do the same to our fellow men. but in the exercise of these exterior acts of humility it is necessary to be directed with discretion so as not to fall into an extravagance that might seem excessive. "Humility," says St. Thomas, "lies chiefly in the soul, and therefore a man may submit himself to another as regards his interior acts, and this is what St. Augustine means when he says: "Before God a prelate is placed under your feet but in exterior acts of humility it is necessary to observe due restraint." [2a 2æ, qu. clxi, art. 3 ad 3]
Profound humility should exist in every state of life, but exterior acts of humility are not expedient to all. For this reason Holy Writ says: "Beware that thou be not deceived into folly and be humbled." [Ecclus xiii, 10]
We can learn of the pious Esther how to practice humility of heart in the midst of pomp and honours: "Thou knowest my necessity," she cried to God, "that 1 abominate the sign of my pride." [Esther xiv, 16] I attire myself in this rich apparel and with these jewels because my position demands it; but Thou, Lord, seest my heart that through Thy grace I am not attached to these things nor to this apparel, and that I only wear them of necessity. Here indeed is a great example of that true inward humility which can be practiced and felt amid external grandeur. But now we. come to the point. This humility of heart must really exist before God, whose eyes behold the most hidden motions of the heart; and if it does not exist what excuse can we allege before the tribunal of God to justify ourselves for not having had it? and the more easily we could have acquired it now, the more inexcusable will it be for us on that day.
86. The malice of pride lies in reality in the practical contempt which we show for God's will by disobeying it. Thus it is, says St. Augustine, there is pride in every sin committed, "by which we despise the commandments of God." [Lib. de. Salut. docum. c. xix] And St. Bernard explains it in this way that God commands us to do His will: "God wishes His will to be done"; and the sinner in his pride prefers his own will to the will of God: "And the proud man wishes his own will to be done."
And it is this pride that so greatly augments the grievousness of sin; and how great our sin must be when, knowing in our minds that God deserves to be obeyed by us, we oppose our will to the will of God, whom we know to be worthy of all obedience. What wickedness there is in saying to God, "I will not serve," [Jer. ii, 20] when we know that all things serve Him." [Ps. cxviii, 91] To give an example of this, let us imagine a person endowed with the noblest qualities possible, such as health, beauty, riches and nobility, and with every natural gift and grace of body and soul. Now, little by little, let us take away from that person all those gifts which come from God. Health and beauty are gifts from God; riches and rank, learning and knowledge, and every other virtue are all from God; body and soul belong to God. And this being so, what remains to this person of his own? Nothing; because all that is more than nothing belongs to God.
But when this person says of himself: "I have riches, I have health, and I have knowledge," etc., what is meant by this "I"? Nothingness; and yet this "I," this nothingness, that derives all it possesses from God, dares to disregard this same God by disobeying His sovereign commandments, saying to Him, if not in words most certainly in deeds, which is far worse, "I will not serve"; no, I will not obey. Ah, pride, pride! But, O my soul, "Why doth thy spirit swell against God ?" [Tob. xv, 13] Am I not right in preaching and recommending this humility to thee? Each time thou sinnest thou art like the proud, Pharao, who, when he was told to obey the commandments of God, said: "Who is this God? I know Him not." [Exod. v, 2]
87. The mistake lies in our having too high an opinion of what the world calls honour, esteem and fame. For however much the world may praise or honour me, it cannot increase my merit or my virtue one jot; and also if the world vituperates me, it cannot take from me anything that I have or that I am in myself. I shall know vanity from truth by the light of that blessed candle which I shall hold in my hand at the hour of my death. What will it profit me then to have been esteemed and honoured by the whole world, if my conscience convinces me of sin before God? Ah, what folly it would be for a nobleman, possessing talents which would endear him to his king and make him a favourite at court, if he were to seek rather to be adulated by his servants and menials, and to find pleasure in such miserable adulation. But it is a far greater folly for a Christian, who might gain the praise and honour of God and of all the angels and saints in heaven, to seek rather to be praised and honoured by men and to glory in it. By humility I can please God, the Angels and the Saints; therefore is it not a despicable pride that makes me desire the esteem, praise and approbation of men, when we are told that "He is approved whom God commendeth?" [2 Cor. x, 18]
The thought of death is profitable in order to acquire humility; and humility helps us greatly to obtain a holy death. St. Catherine of Siena, shortly before her death, was tempted to thoughts of pride and vainglory on account of her own holiness; but to this temptation she answered: "I render thanks to God that in all my life I have never felt any vainglory." Oh, how beautiful to be able to exclaim on one's death-bed: I have never known vainglory.
88. Even admitting the value of the world's esteem and fame for the sole reason that we love and desire it in our hearts, we can infer from this how great is the virtue of humility, since, offering all that we hold so precious to God together with our self-esteem, we offer Him something that we value very highly.
The vow of chastity is considered heroic, be cause we thus sacrifice to God the pleasures of the senses. Martyrdom is considered heroic, because the martyr thus offers up his life as a holocaust to God. And it is also considered heroic to give all one's goods to the poor. But our self-esteem is certainly what we hold more precious than either money, gratification of the senses, or even life itself, because we often risk all these things for the sake of our reputation. Thus by offering our self-esteem with humility to God we offer that which we deem most precious.
This is truly offering "sacrifice to God, and a good savour." [Ecclus xlv, 20] Those who live in the world can often gain more merit by their humility of heart than those who are vowed to poverty and chastity in the sacred cloister, for it is by the practice of this humility that we form within ourselves the "new creature," without which St. Paul says that" Neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision," [Gal. vi, 15]
which is as much as to say that whether you are priest or layman your state can avail nothing without humility.
Humility without virginity may be pleasing to God, but never virginity without humility. Were not the five foolish virgins displeasing to Him? "Vanitate superbiæ," says St. Augustine. And if the Blessed Virgin herself pleased God by her virginity, she also deserved to be chosen for His Mother because of her humility, as St. Bernard says: "By her virginity she pleased God, by her humility she conceived Him." [Hom. I sup. "Missus est"]