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 2
11. There is no Saint however holy and innocent who may not truly consider himself the greatest sinner in the world. It is enough that he knows himself to be man to recognize that he is liable to commit all the evil of which man is capable. As man, I have in my corrupt nature a proclivity to every evil; and so far as I am concerned I am quite capable of committing all kinds of sin, and if I do not commit them it is through a special grace of God which preserves and restrains me.
A tree does not fall while bending under its own weight, and this must be attributed to the strength of its support; and in the same way if I have not fallen into every kind of iniquity, it must not be attributed to my own inherent virtue but only to Divine grace, which by its goodness has supported me. Therefore how can I esteem myself more than another whilst we are all equal in human weakness? "For what is my strength?" [Job vi, 11] I am a son of Adam like every other man, born in sin, inclined to sin, and ever ready to fall into sin. I have no need of the devil to tempt me to sin; my own concupiscence is only too great a temptation; and if God were to withdraw from me His protecting and helping hand, I know that I should be precipitated headlong from bad to worse. When St. Augustine made his examen of conscience, he did not always find sufficient to excite within him sorrow and contrition, so he dwelt on those sins which he might or would have committed had he not been preserved from them by God's infinite mercy; and he grieved and accused himself and humbly implored pardon of God for the evil capacity he had to commit all kinds of heinous and impious sins. In this practice is to be found an exercise of true humility.
12. It has often happened that those who were more perfect than others have shamefully fallen, and this after a long period of good and virtuous works, showing the marvelous things that a man can do when able if abandoned to himself and left to the weakness of his own free-will.
God has shown His creative omnipotence by forming me out of nothing and making me a human being. Were God to withdraw His omnipotent preserving hand from me I should at once show what I am capable of when left to myself, by returning immediately into my nothingness. And, in the order of grace, the nothingness into which I relapse when left to myself is sin. How often "I am brought to nothing, and I knew not." [Ps. lxxii, 21] And what can I find to be proud of in that nothingness?
Give me grace, O my God, to know myself only as much as is necessary to keep me humble! For if I fully realized the insignificance of my own being and the extent of my malice which is capable of offending Thee in divers inconceivable ways, I fear I should be so filled with horror at myself that I should give way to despair!
have within ourselves, in our own experience and feelings, a knowledge
of how greatly our frail and fallen nature is inclined to evil. Today
go and confess certain of our faults, making the resolution not to fall
into them again, and tomorrow notwithstanding we commit them once
At one moment we make up our minds to acquire a certain virtue, and the next we do just the contrary by falling into the opposite vice. At the time when we make these resolutions of amendment we imagine that our will is firm and strong, but we soon perceive how weak and unreliable it is, for we behave as though we had never purposed amendment at all.
heart is like a reed that bends before every wind, or a barque tossed
every wave. It is sufficient to meet with an occasion of sin, a
of passion, a breath of temptation, for the will to yield to evil even
when in certain moments of fervor we seem most firmly rooted in good.
is a strong reason for us to be humble and not to presume anything of
praying to God continually that He may deign to confirm in our hearts
which He works through His grace.
"Confirm, O God, what Thou hast wrought in us." [Ps. lxvii, 29]
Some masters of the spiritual life teach that it is better to divert our thoughts from certain heroic actions in which our weakness might lead us to doubt whether we should succeed or not; for example: if a persecutor should come and summon me either to renounce the faith or to die, how should I act? or, if I were to receive a terrible public insult, should I practice patience or resentment? No, they say it is not well to indulge in such imaginings because our weakness may cause us to fall before the idea of such a trial.
But should such thoughts arise, we can turn them to our good and use our very weakness to practice humility. When such ideas occur it would be well to say: I know what I ought to do on such and such an occasion, but I know not how far I can trust myself, because I know by personal experience that "my strength is weakened through poverty," [Ps. xxx, 11] and I have learnt on several occasions how my reason becomes blinded, my judgment weakened, and my will often perverted easily to evil. O my God, I can do all things if I am strengthened by Thy help; hut without this I can do nothing, nor shall I ever be able to do anything! If I had to confess Thee I should miserably deny Thee; if to honor Thee by patience I should give way to vengeance; if I had to obey Thee I should offend Thee by disobedience. "Thou art a strong helper: when my strength shall fail, do not Thou forsake me." [Ps. lxx, 7, 9] Thy saying is quite true, O my God: "Without Me you can do nothing." [john xv, 5] Not only without Thee can I never do any meritorious act of virtue whatsoever, but I cannot do anything at all; as St. Augustine instructs me: " Whether it be little or whether it be great, it cannot be done without Him without Whom nothing can be done." [Tract 31 in Joan.]
15. A beautiful way of asking humility of God was the following which was used by a great Saint. Lord, he said, I do not even know what humility is like, but I know that I do not possess it, and cannot of myself obtain it; and that unless I have it I shall not be saved; therefore it only remains for me to ask it of Thee, but give me the grace to ask it as I ought. Thou hast promised, O my God, to grant me all those things which I shall ask of Thee and which are necessary to my eternal salvation; and humility being most necessary to me, faith compels me to believe that Thou wilt grant me this, if I know how to ask it of Thee. But herein lies the difficulty, because I know not how to ask Thee as I ought. Teach me and help me that I may pray to Thee as Thou dost wish me to pray and in that efficacious manner in which Thou Thyself knowest that I shall be heard. And as Thou commandest me to be humble, I am ready to obey; but grant that through Thy help I may in truth become such as Thou dost desire. I ardently desire to be humble, and from whence comes this love and desire for humility if not from Thee, Who hast put it into my heart by Thy holy grace? Oh, of Thy goodness grant me therefore what Thou hast made me so love and desire. I hope for it, and I will continue to hope for it. "Strengthen me, O Lord God, that, as Thou hast promised, I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by Thee." [Judith xiii, 7]
16. We may persuade ourselves that we possess various virtues, because we have a tangible proof within us that we really have them. Thus we may judge ourselves to be chaste, because we feel really attracted to chastity; or we may think ourselves abstemious, because we are so by nature; or obedient, because we practice a ready obedience. But however much a man may exercise humility, he can never form any judgment as to his being really humble, for he who thinks himself humble is no longer so.
In the same way that to recognize that we are proud is the beginning of humility, so to flatter ourselves that we are humble is the beginning of pride, and the more humble we think ourselves the greater is our pride. That self-complacency which the heart feels, making us imagine that we are humble in consequence of some agreeable reflections we have had about ourselves, is a species of vanity; and how can vanity exist with humility which is founded solely on truth? Vanity is nothing but a lie, and it is precisely from a lie that pride springs.
Let us pray to God with the prophet: "Let not the foot of pride come to me." [Ps. xxxv, 12] Grant, O my God, that I may be humble, but that I may not know that I am humble. Make me holy, yet ignorant of holiness; for if I should learn to know or even to imagine myself holy, I should become vain; and through vanity should lose all humility and holiness.
From what has just been said it is possible that a tormenting doubt
arise in the mind of some one who might say: If I must judge myself to
be wanting in humility, I must conclude that I am lost, and such a
would lead me to despair. But do you not perceive the error? To speak
you ought to say: I know I am wanting in humility; therefore I must try
and obtain it; for without humility I am a reprobate, and it is
to be humble in order to be among the elect.
There would indeed be cause for despair if on the one hand humility were necessary for salvation and on the other it were unattainable. But nothing is more natural to us than humility, because we are drawn towards it by our own misery; and nothing is easier, since it is enough for us to open our eyes and to know ourselves; this is not a virtue we need go far to seek, as we can always find it within ourselves, and we have an infinity of good reasons in ourselves for doing so. Nevertheless we must labor as long as life lasts to acquire humility, nor must we ever imagine that we have acquired it; and even should we have obtained it in some degree, we must still continue to strive after it as though we did not possess it, in order that we may be able to keep it. Let us have a true desire to be humble; let us not cease to implore God that He may give us the grace to be humble; and let us often study the motives that may help to make us humble of heart; and let us not doubt the Divine Goodness, but conform to the advice given us in Holy Writ: "Think of the Lord in goodness." [Wisd. i, 1]
18. Although we feel the humiliation keenly when we are insulted, persecuted or calumniated, this does not mean that we cannot suffer such trials with sentiments of true humility, subjecting nature to reason and faith and sacrificing the resentment of our self-love to the love of God. We are not made of stone, so that we need be insensible or senseless in order to be humble. Of some Martyrs we read that they writhed under their torments; of others that they more or less rejoiced in them, according to the greater or less degree of unction they received from the Holy Ghost; and all were rewarded by the crown of glory, as it is not the pain or the feeling that makes the Martyr but the supernatural motive of virtue. In the same way some humble persons feel pleasure in being humiliated, and some feel sadness, especially when weighed down with calumny; and yet they all belong to the sphere of the humble, because it is not the humiliation nor the suffering alone which makes the soul humble, but the interior act by which this same humiliation is accepted and received through motives of Christian humility and especially of a desire to resemble Jesus Christ, Who, though entitled to all the honors the world could offer Him, bore humiliation and scorn for the glory of His eternal Father: "For Thy sake, O God of Israel, I have borne reproach." [Ps. lxviii, 8]
The doctrine of St. Bernard is worthy of our notice: It is one thing to be humiliated, and another to be humble. It often happens that the proud man is humiliated, yet he nevertheless remains proud, receiving humiliations with anger and contempt, doing all he can to escape them with fretful impatience. It sometimes happens too that the proud man becomes humble; the humiliation teaching him to know himself as he is, and by this knowledge he learns to love this very humiliation: "He is humble who converts all his humiliations into humility and says unto God: 'It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me.' " [D. Bern, serm. 34, in Cant.]
19. In the spiritual life I can promise myself nothing without the special help of God; and most true is the teaching of the Holy Ghost: "Thy help is only in Me." [Osee. xiii, 9] From one moment to another I may fall into mortal sin: consequently, even though I may have labored many years in acquiring virtues, I may in one instant lose all the good I have done, lose all my merit for eternity, and lose even that blessed eternity itself. How can a king rule with arrogance, when he is besieged by his enemies and from day to day runs the risk of losing his kingdom and ceasing to be a king? And has not a Saint abundant reasons, from the thought of his own weakness, to live always in a state of great humility, when he knows that from one hour to another he may lose the grace of God and the kingdom of Heaven which he has merited by years of laboriously-acquired virtues? "Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." [Ps. cxxvi, 1]
However spiritual and holy a man may be, he cannot regard himself as absolutely secure. The Angels themselves, enriched with sanctity, were not safe in Paradise. Man, endowed with innocence, was not safe in his earthly paradise. What safety therefore can there be for us with our corrupt nature, amid so many perils and so many enemies, who within and without are ever seeking insidiously to undermine our eternal salvation?
In order to be eternally damned it is enough I should follow the dictates of nature, but to be saved it is necessary that Divine grace should prevent and accompany me, should follow and help me, watch over me, and never abandon me. Oh, how right therefore was St. Paul in exhorting us to "work out our salvation"-----which is for all eternity-----"with fear and trembling"! [Phil. ii, 12]
20. To be contented and self-satisfied, to lead a quiet, easy-going life, accomplishing only what duty prescribes, is not a good sign. After having done all that our Christian profession requires of us, our Lord nevertheless wishes us to consider ourselves useless servants of His Church: "So you also, when you shall have done all things commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants." [Luke xvii, 10] Therefore how much more useless we ought to consider ourselves, if we live in tepidity and sloth, by which we are still so far removed from that perfection to which we are bound!
When I make my examen of conscience do I find that I fulfill all my duties in the sight of God? What virtue have I acquired hitherto? It may be said that we have acquired the habit of such and such a virtue when we come to practice it willingly and with facility; but when I examine myself, what virtue can I find which I habitually practice with pleasure and facility? I cannot find even one. I am a most unprofitable servant on earth; and if I were now called before the tribunal of my eternal Judge, I much fear that it would be said to me: "Thou wicked servant," [Matt. xviii, 32] and not, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." [Matt. xxv, 21]