Circular Letter: Lent 2003
Humility: A Virtue for All Seasons
In the Work of the Holy Angels the members are encouraged to strive to acquire seven special virtues which will help them to achieve a more intimate union with the holy angels. These are: Fidelity, Humility, Obedience, Charity, Silence, Temperance and the Imitation of Mary.
I. Humility, the Handmaid of Perfection!
The second of the seven basic character traits in the Work of the Holy Angels is humility. Few virtues come so highly recommended: “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart!” (Mt 11:29). After the model of the King who said, “I am in your midst as one who serves” (Lk 22:27) and out of love for the truth, humility finds joy in serving. In a general way, humility is the handmaid of grace in the soul, abasing itself in lowliness like Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, for which reason God exalts the soul to a greater share in holiness. “It is impossible to imagine holiness in any of God’s creatures without humility and purity. For as chastity is the body’s purity, humility is the soul’s purity, and purity is the first condition of sanctity” (Archbishop Ullathorne, Little Book on Humility and Patience, I, ch. 6, 1).
Humility gladly serves the other virtues, too. It dedicates itself to the lowliest of tasks: to the removal of all the obstacles to grace and virtue. But God looks on the lowliness of His servants, and in the end, humility will bear one of the greatest crowns in glory! The goodness or greatness of a virtue is measured with respect to the final goal. Those virtues are most noble, which most directly unite us to God, the Supreme Good, and which best help us to glorify Him. These are charity, hope, faith and religion.
Queen of the virtues is charity, which not only unites us directly to God, but makes us god-like in goodness and beauty, allowing us to love even as He does. Humility serves charity “by disposing us to this union with God, by moving us to submit wholly to Him in all things” (St. Thomas, Sentence Commentary, 4 d. 12 q. 3 a. 2 qc. 3 ad 1).
Humility is also a key to the exercise and growth of fraternal charity. “True humility never was, never is, and never can be without charity. Humility is the sacrificial element in all sincere love. For as love is the transfer of our affection from oneself to another, it includes a surrender of self-love, and this surrender is humility.” Moreover, “nothing makes us more like to God than to forgive those who offend and injure us” (Ullathorne, ibid., I, 16, 3). Now he who lacks humility is not inclined to forgive.
By godly hope we audaciously and ardently desire – with the help of His grace – to win God Himself as our everlasting reward of happiness, to enjoy forever the everlasting embrace of His Love in the perfect knowledge of the beloved in heaven. At the thought of such an exceedingly great reward the humble is inclined to respond as David did, when encouraged to marry the King’s daughter: “Do you think it a small matter, to be the king’s son in law? I am a poor man of small ability” (1 Sm 18:23). Humility unites holy fear and trust in the soul, so that the soul, while openly admitting its lowliness (thus overcoming presumption), trustingly places all its hope in the goodness and omnipotence of God (thus overcoming pusillanimity). The presumptuous soul would enter the wedding feast without the garment of divine grace, and so be cast out into the darkness (cf. Mt 22:11-13). Hope is the wedding garment, humility helps us put it on! “They that fear the Lord will seek after the things that are well pleasing to Him: and they that love Him shall be filled with His law” (Sir 2:19).
“Without faith it is impossible to please God!” (Heb 11:6). “Faith is, by its very nature, a subjection of the mind and will to God as He is the Sovereign Truth, a subjection to His divine authority as the illuminator and teacher of the soul, and a subjection to the truth which He teaches by revealing. Moreover, God is pleased to require that this subjection of faith shall be openly made and manifested before all men, by our open submission to the Church whom He has appointed to represent His authority, and to the voice of her teaching, and to her ministry of grace, as exercised in His name and by His power. This is not only faith, but the humility of faith, because it is the subjection of the mind and heart to the authority of God, and to His truth in the way that He imposes and prescribes. Humility, then, is the groundwork of faith, and faith the groundwork of the other Christian virtues, which are all exercised in the light of faith. Humility frees the soul from pride and error, faith fills her with light and truth; humility opens the soul that faith may enter; humility brings us to the knowledge of ourselves, and faith to the knowledge of God” (Ullathorne, ibid,. I, 14, 3-4).
Serving the Moral Virtues
The moral virtues transform and embellish the powers of the soul by subordinating them to the light of reason, and to be more precise, to the light of faith. Humility watches over this holy order in the soul. Humility is a potential part of the cardinal virtue of temperance, because like it, humility restrains the impetuosity of the appetites. Humility works under modesty helping to keep rule among the heart’s desires. As such, humility keeps check on vainglory. Since man can glory in and worship just about anything (wealth, power, beauty, knowledge, talents, etc), it is clear that humility holds the key to the treasure chamber of the heart. Humility keeps our spirit free to worship God in spirit and truth (virtue of religion). “The safe and true way to heaven is made by humility, which lifts up the heart to the Lord, not against Him.” (St. Augustine. City of God, Bk. XVI, ch. 4).
Humility serves prudence in many ways. First of all by helping us to focus on the goal, rejecting all false (gods) goals. Thus Joshua challenged Israel: “If it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, you have your choice: choose this day that which pleases you, whom you would rather serve, whether the gods which your fathers served in Mesopotamia, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (Jos 24:15). By helping us have a modest opinion about ourselves, our knowledge, talents and capacities, humility disposes us to seek and receive counsel from others, and to be circumspect in our reasoning and judgments. It frees us from flattery and adulation, which could make us fall prey to the wisdom of the world and human respect.
Finally, humility actually resides in the irascible appetite. Hence, its resemblance to fortitude! For this reason it is said in the Work of the Holy Angels: “Humility is the courage to serve!” It is a source of hidden strength. As St. Thomas explains, humility is really about something arduous and difficult. “Christ especially recommended humility to us, because this virtue especially removes the obstacles to man’s spiritual welfare, which consists in man’s striving for heavenly things” (Summa Theol. II-II.161,5,4m). In this strength to overcome obstacles, humility helps prudence surmount all the impediments (e.g. human respect) which hinder us from carrying out promptly a duly pondered decision. It is precisely in this resolute purposefulness that humility comes to perfection.
II. Anecdotal Sketch of heroic Humility
After a long day’s journey in cold, stormy weather, St. Francis Borgia, Superior General of the Jesuits, and his companion came to an isolated tavern. The innkeeper informed them, that he had no more rooms. Their pitiful state and humble requests, however, prevailed upon the man; he set up cots for them in the chilly, narrow attic. St. Francis’ companion, who had caught a terrible cold, spent the night wheezing, hawking up phlegm and spitting it on the wall.
Upon awakening in the morning, the sick man verified to his utter consternation that he had become disoriented in the dark, and had spent the whole night spitting in St. Francis’ face. Beside himself with shame and compunction, he begged St. Francis’ forgiveness. St. Francis calmed and consoled his companion, saying, “Don’t worry about it. There was no better place to spit upon up here.” And for him, the matter was ended; he did not speak of it again.
III. The Ladder of Humility
Humility is loved for her beauty by the saints; her lineage and comportment are minutely described. Most famous among these presentations is the one St. Benedict presents in his rule. His approach was pedagogical, beginning with the outward steps. We follow here the order of St. Thomas, who begins with the inner, most essential aspects of humility. Humility is busy with restraining our oft impetuous desire for excellence. The standard is not desire, but right reason accepting the reality of what we are before God and man. Hence, the heart of humility consists in walking reverently in the presence of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, being ever solicitous to observe His commandments. This is the first degree.
Then there are three things we must do to contain our appetite within bounds: (2) If we truly recognize that God is over us, we should not follow our own will, as if this were an ultimate standard for our actions. (3) Rather, we should allow our conduct to be guided and directed by those above us (whether in the family, in the community, at work or elsewhere). (4) We should have the strength of character not to give up our duties or worthy undertakings on account of difficulties we may meet in the process.
Then there are certain things which refer to one’s estimation: (5) In a spirit of veracity we should acknowledge and confess our own shortcomings. (6) We should not deem ourselves capable of great things (although, with the help of God’s grace, we may accomplish great things). (7) In the light of the preceding, we should prefer others to ourselves. While one may have considerable talents, there are always certain aspects in which others still excel.
Since humility is a virtue of service, of restraint and of veracity, both the virtue and its opposition will necessarily manifest themselves in certain outward signs: (8) First, with regards to his conduct, the humble man does not depart from the common path, from the common way of acting, dressing, etc. (9) With respect to speech, he is not hasty in speaking, he does not exalt his own opinion nor impose it on others; he does not barge into a conversation, but lets others have their say. (10) Rather, his conversation is moderate in tone and topic and in the choice of his words.
Finally, there are two outwards signs of comportment and gestures: (11) The humble man avoids haughty looks and gestures. (12) He is not poured out in excessive mirth, which belies too much sensuality, a self-centered form of love.
IV. God, the Sculptor of Perfection
How zealous (jealous) God is for our perfection! Herein He is more like a sculptor cutting away the excess wood than like a painter, who daubs over imperfections with cosmetic color. Humiliations are among His finest chisels! In his autobiography, He Leadeth Me, the American Jesuit Fr. Walter Ciszek gives us a sketch of how the Master’s hand worked upon him during his many years behind the Iron Curtain, many of them spent in prison.
First Trial in Lumber Camp Teplaya-Gora
Fr. Walter yearned to preach the Gospel to those enslaved behind the Iron Curtain. His chance came when, during World War II, the Soviets overran Poland, where he was stationed. He began work among the lumber workers in the Ural Mountains. How quickly was his dream crushed. Supervision so tight, that it was nearly impossible to speak openly about God. Even worse, the workers themselves had no interest to hear about God. Propaganda, fear and the struggle for existence had dulled any sensitivity for the supernatural. In delusion, he was tempted to run away. It all seemed a colossal mistake; it wasn’t anything like he had expected.
“And then one day, together, it dawned on us. God granted us the grace to see the solution to our dilemma, the answer to our temptation. It was the grace quite simply to look at our situation from His viewpoint rather than from ours. It was the grace not to judge our efforts by human standards, or, by what we ourselves wanted or expected to happen, but rather, according to God’s design. It was the grace to understand that our dilemma, our temptation, was of our own making and existed only in our minds; it did not and could not coincide with the real world ordained by God and governed ultimately by His will.
Our dilemma at Teplaya-Gora came from our frustration at not being able to do what we thought the will of God ought to be in this situation, at our inability to work as we thought God would surely want us to work, instead of actually accepting the situation itself as His will. …
The simple [humble] soul who each day makes a morning offering of ‘all the prayers, works, joys and suffering of this day’ – and who then acts upon it by accepting unquestioningly and responding lovingly to all the situations of the day as truly sent by God – has perceived with an almost childlike faith the profound truth about the will of God. To predict what God’s will is going to be, to rationalize about what His will must be, is at once a work of human folly and yet the subtlest of all temptations.
The plain and simple truth is that His will is what He actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. … The temptation is to overlook these things as God’s will. The temptation is to look beyond these things, precisely because they are so constant, so petty, so humdrum and routine, and to seek to discover instead some other and nobler ‘will of God’ in the abstract that better fits our notion of what His will should be. That was our temptation at Teplaya-Gora. The answer lies in understanding that it is these things – and these things alone, here and now, at this moment – that truly constitute the will of God. The challenges lies in learning to accept this truth [humbly] and act upon it, every moment of every day” (He Leadeth Me, excerpts pp. 42-45).
Second Trial in Prison
Shortly thereafter, Fr. Walter was discovered and sent to prison. He describes his trial: “Helplessness is the word. If I had felt frustrated at Teplaya-Gora, because I could not work among the people the way I had hoped, that feeling of frustration was as nothing compared to this sinking feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. … To both prison officials and fellow prisoners alike, I was a thing of no value, I was worthless. And so added to the common feeling of helplessness and powerlessness, I suffered the hollow and sickening sense of being useless as well.
As I had done in every other crisis, I turned to God in prayer. I sought His help, His sympathy, His consolation. Since I was suffering especially for His sake, since I was despised precisely because I was one of His priests, He could not fail to comfort me when He Himself, in His human life, had fitted Isaiah’s description of ‘despised and the most abject of men’. He too had sought for someone to comfort Him and had found none. Surely He would sympathize with my plight; surely He would comfort and console me.
His way of consoling me, however, as had happened so often in the past, was to increase my self-knowledge and my understanding of both His providence and the mystery of salvation. When I turned to Him in prayer in the depths of my humiliation, when I ran to Him utterly dejected because I felt useless and despised, the grace I received in return was the light to recognize how large an admixture of self had crept into the picture. I had been humiliated and I was feeling sorry for myself. No one appreciated me as a priest, and I was indulging in self-pity. I was being treated unfairly, unjustly, out of prejudice. There was no one to listen to my sad story and offer me sympathy, so I was feeling sorry for myself. That was really the extent of my ‘humiliation’. …
In how may other ways, too, had I allowed this admixture of self, this luxury of feeling sorry for myself, to cloud my vision and prevent me from seeing the current situation with the eyes of God? No man, no matter what his situation is ever without value, is ever useless in God’s eyes. No situation is ever without its worth and purpose in God’s providence.
Many men feel frustrated, or disappointed, or even defeated, when they find themselves face to face with a situation or an evil they cannot do much about. Poverty, addiction, alcoholism, social injustice, racial discrimination, hatred and bitterness, war, etc. – all can serve as a source of bitter frustration and hopelessness. But God does not expect a man single-handedly to change the world, or overthrow all evil, or cure all ills. He does expect him, though, to act as He would have him act in these circumstance ordained by His will and His providence. Nor will God’s grace be lacking to help him act. …
What each man can change, first of all, is himself. And each will have – indeed, must have – some influence on the people God brings into his life each day. He is expected as a Christian to influence them for good” (ibid., pp. 49-54).
Third Trial at the crucial Interrogation
Later, accused of being a Vatican spy, Fr. Walter was transferred to the Lubianka Prison in Moscow. The KGB boasted of doing “their best work” there, that is, by eliciting confessions through torture. Fr. Walter resisted terror, intimidations, beatings and interminable interrogations night and day for a period of 12 months; his strength was at an end. And he kept waiting for the Holy Spirit to intervene as he knew He should. …
The show-down came. A pistol was put to his head and he was told to sign the confession, or get ready to ‘sign out!’ Still, the Holy Spirit was silent! In that terrible silence, he buckled and signed the confession, a political weapon against the Catholic Church.
Back in his cell he trembled uncontrollably. Why hadn’t God, at least, let him die of a heart attack before signing the papers.? “I had trusted in Him and His Spirit to give me a voice and wisdom against all my adversaries. I had confounded no one, but had myself been totally broken and confounded. …
Little by little, surely under His inspiration and His grace, I began to wonder about myself and my prayer. Why did I feel this way? The sense of defeat and failure was easy enough to explain after that episode in the interrogator’s office, but why so strong a sense of guilt and shame? I had acted in panic, I had yielded under the threat of death. Why should I hold myself so fully responsible, why feel so guilty, for actions taken without full deliberation or full consent of will? …
Slowly, reluctantly, under the gentle proddings of grace, I faced the truth that was at the root of my problem and my shame. The answer was a single word: ‘I’. I was ashamed because I knew in my heart that I had tried to do too much on my own, and I had failed. I felt guilty because I realized, finally, that I had asked God’s help but had really believed in my own ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. I had spent much time in prayer over the years, I had come to appreciate and thank God for His providence and care … but I had never really abandoned myself to it. … In short, I felt guilty and ashamed because in the last analysis I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test – and I had failed.
Had I not even set the terms upon which the Holy Spirit was to intervene in my behalf? Had I not expected Him to prompt me to give an answer I had already predetermined was the answer I would give? I had not really left myself open to the Spirit. I had in fact, long ago decided what I expected to hear from the Spirit and when I did not hear precisely that I had felt betrayed. Whatever else the Spirit might have been telling me at that hour, I could not hear. Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to His will is what the virtue of humility is all about. For humility is truth, the full truth, the truth that encompasses our relation to God the Creator and through Him to the world He has created and to our fellowmen. And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested. It is self that is humiliated; there would be no ‘humiliation’ if we had learned to put self in its place, to see ourselves in proper perspective before God and other men. And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us. That was the terrible insight that dawned upon me in the cell at Lubianka as I prayed, shaken and dejected, after my experience with the interrogator.
The Spirit had not abandoned me, for the whole experience has been His work. The sense of guilt and shame I felt was rooted in my failure to put grace ahead of nature, my failure to trust primarily in God rather than in my own powers. I had failed and I was shaken to the roots, but it was a salutary shaking. … It was not the Church that was on trial in Lubianka. It was not the Soviet Government or the KGB versus Walter Ciszek. It was God versus Walter Ciszek. God was testing me by this experience like gold in the furnace. Thanks be to God!… I had learned… how totally I depended on Him for everything even in my survival and how foolish had been my reliance on self.
The greatest grace God can a man is to send him a trial that he cannot bear with his own powers – and then sustain him with His grace so he may endure to the end and be saved” (ibid., excerpts pp. 78-82). (Fr. Walter Ciszek’s cause for beatification was introduced some years ago in Rome.)
V. False Humility
“This is a false humility; and it was invented by the devil so that he might unsettle me and see if he could drive my soul to despair. His part in it is evident from the disquiet and unrest with which it begins, from the turmoil which he creates in the soul for so long as his influence lasts, and from the darkness and affliction into which he plunges it, causing it an aridity and an ill-disposition for prayer and for everything that is good. He seems to stifle the soul and to constrain the body, and thus to render both powerless. For, though the soul is conscious of its own wretchedness and it distresses us to see what we are and our wickedness seems to us to be of the worst possible kind – as bad as that which has just been described – and we feel it very deeply, yet genuine humility does not produce inward turmoil, nor does it cause unrest in the soul, or bring it darkness or aridity: on the contrary, it cheers it and produces in it the opposite effects – quietness, sweetness and light.
Though it causes us distress, we are comforted to see what a great favor God is granting us by sending us that distress and how well the soul is occupied. Grieved as it is at having offended God, it is also encouraged by His mercy. It is sufficiently enlightened to feel ashamed, but it praises His Majesty, Who for so long has borne with it. In that other humility, which is the work of the devil, the soul has not light enough to do anything good and thinks of God as of one who is always wielding fire and sword. It pictures God’s righteousness, and, although it has faith in His mercy, for the devil is not powerful enough to make it lose its faith, yet this is not such as to bring me consolation, for, when my soul considers God’s mercy, this only increases its torment, since I realize that it involves me in greater obligations. This is an invention of the devil, and one of the most grievous and subtle and dissembling that I have found in him” (St. Theresa of Avila, Autobiography, ch. 30).
“I saw all the snares of the evil enemy spread over the earth. At that I sighed, saying: ‘Who can escape them?’
Then I heard a voice saying to me: ‘Humility!'” (St. Anthony of the Desert).
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