Out of all the natural virtues one can posses, there is no other that should characterize the disposition of religious as humility. Humility is so important, in fact, that without it, religious will be unable to fulfill the primary duties of their vocation, namely; of obtaining graces for themselves, for others, and for the world. Put simply, only humble people are capable of prayer. A proud religious, no matter how much he prays, no matter how much he sacrifices, no matter how punctual he is to the bell, will be unable to obtain graces for the salvation of souls. Humility is the starting point, and the reference point, for all the saints. And it must therefore also be the starting point for a proper renewal of religious life. In short, if a community only possesses one virtue, it ought to be humility. If they have nothing else, they will have more than all the others, because their prayers will be heard and they will obtain mercy for the world.
How Humility Obtains All Graces
Humility can be defined as self-knowledge in reference to God. The more knowledge a person has of himself, and the more knowledge a person has of God (and likewise the infinite gap between the two), the more he is capable of entrusting his life to the Creator instead of relying on his own strength as creature. And this, says Saint Catherine of Siena, is the key to all grace; for every evil comes by way of trusting in oneself instead of God, "And from this trusting in themselves rather than in Me comes every evil." And as Jesus told Saint Faustina, it is trust that opens the floodgates of grace, "Your great trust in Me forces me to continuously grant you graces. You have great and incomprehensible rights over My Heart, for you are a daughter of complete trust." These statements may seem striking in themselves, but they are well-grounded in the Scriptures, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6,1 Peter 5:5) And in Matthew we read, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:12)
God to Saint Catherine of Siena: "Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you knew these two things, you will be blessed. You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in your soul and the Enemy will never deceive you and you will escape all his willes; you will never disobey my commandments and you will acquire all grace, truth, and light."
Moses Praying (detail), by John Everett Millais
One of the most striking examples of humility in the Old Testament was Moses himself, the leader and savior of Israel, "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on earth." (Num. 12:3) Is it just a coincidence that the most humble man on earth was exalted to the highest mission, invested with God's authority, and was the only one to speak to God face to face? Indeed, humility is so important, that it is virtually a precondition for repentance and for God's mercy. How many times do we read, "He humbled himself and repented of his sin?" In fact, almost everyone who humbled themselves were shown some grace and mercy from God.
King Ahab in many ways was the opposite of Moses. He was considered one of the worst tyrants of the Old Testament, doing more evil than all the other kings before him (1 Kings 16:33, 21:25). And yet despite such a wicked character, despite being worthy of God's wrath, God was merciful with Ahab. Why? Because he humbled himself at the words of Elijah, "And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes, and put on sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, 'Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring evil in his days, but in his son's days I will bring the evil upon his house.'" This is a powerful lesson that God's mercy (even in the Old Testament) is greater than man's sin, even the worst of sinners. And this pattern is continually repeated throughout the Old Testament---that God is not pleased with sacrifices of bulls or goats, but with a humble and contrite heart,
"For you do not desire sacrifice... A burnt offering you would refuse. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit. A humble and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not spurn." (Ps. 51:16)Mary: Perfect Humility and "Full of Grace"
"Humble people you save, though on the haughty your eyes look down." (2 Sam. 22:28)
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (Chron. 7:14)
"When the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, this word of the Lord came to Shemaiah: “Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance. My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak." (2 Chron. 12:7)
"Because Rehoboam humbled himself, the Lord’s anger turned from him, and he was not totally destroyed. Indeed, there was some good in Judah." (2 Chron. 12:12)
"But unlike his father Manasseh, he did not humble himself before the Lord; Amon increased his guilt." (2 Chron. 33:23)
"He guides the humble in righteousness, and teaches the humble his way." (Ps. 25:9)
"My son, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find mercy in the sight of God. For great is the power of the Lord; by the humble he is glorified." (Sirach 3:17)
In the New Testament, who is the most humble if not the Blessed Virgin Mary? Is Mary not a preeminent example of the humble being exalted? God "looked upon her lowliness," in her perfect humility, and thenceforth "all generations will call her Blessed." She was "full of grace" because perfect humility obtains all graces. As Mary tells Saint Catherine, "the medicine by which He willed to heal the whole world and to soothe His wrath and Divine justice was humble, constant, holy prayer." And who was more humble and constant in prayer than Mary herself?
Saint Catherine of Siena: "So greatly did the virtue of humility please Him in Mary that He was constrained to give her the Word, His Only-Begotten Son, and she was the sweet mother who gave Him to us."
Although God Himself cannot be humble in the strictest sense of the word, God's salvific act was an act of perfect humility---teaching man the value of humility by how He chose to redeem man. The very action of the Incarnation, of God "humbling Himself" by becoming man, being born as a helpless vulnerable baby in poverty, in the bitter cold, surrounded by hay, dirt, spider webs, and excrement, further communicates the importance of humility. The most important sermon Jesus ever gave was the Sermon on the Mount. And He begins this sermon by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom." To be poor in spirit is another word for humility; for one is poor in spirit if one has but God in their spirit, and is not weighed down by a multitude of other worldly concerns.
Love presupposes humility in the human person, and in fact cannot exist without humility. In her Dialogue, Saint Catherine of Siena outlines the spiritual path in such a manner, "Every perfection and every virtue proceeds from charity. Charity is nourished by humility. And humility comes from knowledge and holy hatred of oneself. To attain charity, therefore, you must dwell constantly in the cell of self-knowledge." The importance of this passage cannot be understated. We might call it a blueprint of the spiritual life, which Saint Catherine returns to throughout her writings. It begins with the goal: Charity. But to attain charity, one must grow in humility. And humility only comes from self-knowledge, which as Catherine later clarifies, only comes by way of "constant, humble prayer." This phrase, "constant humble prayer," is repeated by Catherine more than any other phrase in her work. It is only through constant humble prayer, according to Catherine, that we will reach love. In other words, humility precedes love. Prayer is the beginning, self-knowledge is the intermediate step (which is another word for humility). Then and only then, can one attain love. Visually, it would appear thus; prayer --> self-knowledge --> humility --> love. This is one of the most enlightening statements I have ever read in all the writings of the saints. How grand and yet amazingly simple this truth is! Saint Catherine is essentially giving us the key to happiness in this life, the simplest and surest formula for holiness. And this should make sense to us. What loving father would not give anything to a child who is constantly at his feet looking up with adoring and trusting eyes? What good father would not melt at seeing such in his child? This is true prayer: A constant, simple, loving gaze of a child looking up into her father's eyes.
Saint Catherine of Siena: "What way is there to make the imperfect perfect? This way: To correct and chastise the movements of your heart with true self-knowledge [...] If you do this you will attain perfection; for from self-knowledge you will gain hatred of your own carnality...you will become a judge, and sit upon the seat of your conscience, and pass judgment; and you will not let a fault go without giving sentence on it [...] Thus are vices conquered in your soul...through the virtue of humility... seeking His honor and the salvation of souls through constant humble prayer. Now herein is all our perfection."
"Constant Humble Prayer"
The phrase "constant humble prayer" was repeated so frequently in Catherine's writings, that it would be negligent of us to ignore it. We must regard this phrase as a cornerstone to her writings on the spiritual life. This is an invaluable discovery for us; for it is precisely the religious who must obtain graces for the world and the conversion of sinners. It is thus imperative that they know how to pray properly. And true prayer, as we have said, must be both constant and humble. And by humble, we are not just referring to intellectual knowledge, but a deep awareness of one's nothingness and God's greatness. Such humility cannot help but "groan" from the heart, in tears and weeping, and "holy desire" as Catherine calls it. As she says, "Perfect prayer is achieved not with many words, but with loving desire." And God adds, "These servants of mine constrain me with their humble tears and constant prayer." Humility, in other words, is the hinge upon which the floodgates of heaven's graces rest. It is was makes prayer, prayer. Without humility, prayer is just sounds from the mouth. But with humility, with the heartfelt "loving desire," it moves the very heavens.
Pride: An Impediment to Religious Life?
Just as humility "acquires all grace," so too does pride exclude all grace. One can be a thief, for example, and still receive grace is he humbles himself before God. One can be prone to anger, and still receive grace if he humbles himself. One can be lewd and an adulterer, and still receive grace by humbling himself. But one cannot be prideful and expect to receive any grace or mercy from God. Pride, in fact, rejects mercy by its very nature. The one unforgivable sin, "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit," is another word for pride, since it excludes the possibility of mercy by setting itself above God's mercy. Pride, in fact, is at the root of all sin, and the one stumbling block that prevents most souls from becoming saints. It is for this reason that a minimum degree of humility should be found in any soul desiring to enter the religious state--for without the kernel nothing can grow.
Let us now clarify what true humility is, since this word can have different meanings to different people. To be clear, humility is not a kind of shyness or bashfulness, nor is it a reserved nature, or some other exterior trait. Humility is not even self-accusation and self-deprecation (although these can be aids to humility). More importantly, humility is a disposition of the heart, a deep and profound awareness of ones own nothingness compared to God's greatness and love. This awareness is more than just intellectual knowledge, but is a deep and profound understanding in one's being (It is a virtue if it is a firm and lasting disposition). It recognizes that of ourselves, we are nothing, and in fact worse than nothing---having only sin which we can truly call our own.
Objection: "It seems unhealthy and pathological to say I am nothing. Aren't we all children of God and made in His image and likeness?"
While the human person is the pinnacle of creation, being made in the image and likeness of God---and therefore bears the imprint of God in his soul---he also has a propensity to sin (concupiscence, due to Original Sin), and would do nothing but sin if it were not for grace. Grace, in other words, precedes every good act man does (Augustine). Without grace, man is only capable of sin. To use an imperfect analogy, think of sin as the force of gravity. It is always present, pulling man down toward the earth. This downward force can only be overcome by a greater upward force lifting man up. This upward force might be considered grace. Grace continually sustains man in existence, and draws man to the heights of God. And the higher man is lifted, the less the force of gravity affects him.
So when the saints proclaim they are nothing, or even worse than nothing, this is not just hyperbole or sentimental language. This is really a true statement which they believe with all their being. If left to our own devices, this is precisely what man would choose---sin, selfishness, hatred, pleasure, avarice---everything that destroys the soul and lowers us below even the animals.
Objection: "But I am a good person, even if I may not be religious. I avoid evil and try to help my neighbor. So how am I nothing?"
To this, we must again repeat: Any good we do, is not us but grace working in us (through the cooperation of our will). Even if we may not perceive it, even if we may not even believe in God, grace is forever working in our lives sustaining us and inclining our will to choose good. We therefore cannot attribute any good we do to ourselves, since grace precedes every good work. This is basic Catholic Theology 101. To prove our point, let us imagine a world where grace ceased working, where God removed His hand from the world. We know what would happen because it happened in the days of Noah before the flood,
"When the Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved." (Gen. 6:1-5)
Without grace, mankind quickly descends and makes for himself a hell on earth, not unlike the demons. And in so doing, he lowers himself below even the animals. Why? Because through his free will, man can deny his own nature and make himself an enemy of God. Animals are not capable of this, since they do not posses free will. An ant, for example, cannot deny its own nature. An ant always behaves like an ant, and cannot do otherwise. It cannot sin and therefore does not merit a worse-than-nothing existence of hell. The human person, however, does sin (and as we have said, is only capable of sin apart from grace), and therefore can lower himself below even an ant, by becoming an enemy of God. Through free will, the human person has the capacity to deny his very nature (which again, is fundamentally good since it was created in the image and likeness of God) and become like a demon. The only way to prevent this, is to cooperate with the action of grace in our lives. Returning to our gravity analogy, grace gives us wings to fly above the earth, but we must do our part by flapping our wings, i.e., cooperating with grace. And just as the force of gravity lessens the further an object leaves the earth's atmosphere, so too does the weight of sin and vice lessen the holier one becomes.OK, enough philosophy. What does humility look like in everyday life?
One of the best saints to help answer this question is Saint Francis De Sales. Saint Francis De Sales was a very practical saint and doctor of the Church (not unlike Saint Teresa of Avila in some ways), and provides many wonderful examples of humility in everyday life. Most importantly, humility is so convinced at its own unworthiness, and fearful of the head of pride, that it prefers to be accused rather than to accuse itself, and endeavors to hide all its virtue, and be considered ordinary than to be seen as virtuous. Let it suffice to quote these passages in full;
Saint Francis De Sales: "We often say we are nothing, that we are misery itself and the refuse of the world, but we would be very sorry if anyone took us at our word and told others that we are really such as we say. On the contrary...we pretend to want to be last... True humility does not make a show of itself and hardly speaks in a humble way. It not only wants to conceal all other virtues, but most of all it wants to conceal itself. If it were lawful to lie...or scandalize our neighbor, humility would perform arrogant and haughty actions so that it might be concealed beneath them and live completely hidden and unknown."
Saint Francis De Sales, The Gentle Doctor
"Let us not lower our eyes except when we humble our hearts. Let us not make a show of wanting to be the lowest unless we desire with all our hearts to be such."
"A truly humble man prefers that another tell him that he is a sorry fellow, that he is nothing at all and that he is worth nothing, than to say it himself. At least if he knows that someone says this about him, he does not contradict it but heartily agrees with it. Since he firmly believes it he is satisfied if others adopt his opinion."
"Humility conceals and covers over virtues in order to preserve them, but it reveals them when charity so requires in order that we may enlarge, increase, and perfect them. In this respect, humility imitates a certain tree found on the island of Tylos. At night it contracts and closes up its beautiful carnation blossoms and only opens them again in the morning sun.. In like manner, humility covers over and hides all our purely human virtues and perfections and never displays them except for the sake of charity."
"If people think you are abject or foolish because of acts of true, genuine devotion, humility will cause you to rejoice at such fortunate criticism for its cause is not in you but in those who make it."
"Humility is true knowledge and voluntary acknowledgment of our abjection... to hold our neighbor in higher esteem than ourselves."
Since humility is so important in the religious state, it is important that the formation of religious be focussed on developing this virtue. It is thus vital that superiors govern in such a way so as to inspire in their subjects a greater desire for holiness, and especially humility. If a superior truly loves her subjects as a mother loves her children, then she will conduct herself toward this end, and give to each according to their need. She will not lack praise and encouragement at appropriate times. Nor will she lack a mother's touch and kindness. However, when it comes to the matter of sin and vice, she must be firm and uncompromising in rooting it out. Superiors must not be timid or fearful of correcting, for fear of harming a friendship. Like parents, the primary role of superiors is not to be friends with their subjects, but to be parents. They are not just one sister among many, but they have been appointed to a particular office with particular powers and authority. To fail to exercise this authority, especially in matters of sin and vice, does a great disservice to the members of the community, who entered religious expecting to grow in holiness and not stagnate through the complacency of a careless superior. Saint Teresa of Avila has very firm words to say against superiors who do not correct their subjects;
"Superiors are the cause of these and many other evils, because they do not keep their eyes on their subjects. They give them plenty of rope, and even send them out, and then pretend not to see their wretched behavior. [...] I tell you, these great evils have come because of superiors who will not correct and subjects who are wicked."
"All these evils, dearest daughter, come of not administering corrections out of one's own good and holy living. Why do they not correct? Because they are blinded by their selfish self-centerdness."
Let us remember, to love means "to will the good of the other." It is thus necessary to know the other well enough to know what will spur them to the Good, namely God. Like priests, superiors must know the right medicine to prescribe for each ailment, and in the right amount. Too much, and they will discourage their subjects. Too little, and they will cause complacency. Superiors, in other words, must be masters of souls, and of human nature. Nuns who may be more intelligent and advanced, for example, may need to be corrected with a firmer hand and held to a higher standard than the others, in order to prevent pride from taking root in their souls. The less advanced ones, on the other hand, may become discouraged by too firm a hand, and thus ought to be corrected in a gentler manner. In short, the superior must be advanced in all virtue and doctors of human nature. And most of all, they must lead by example, by first being humble themselves (the greatest leaders, as we know, are always the most humble). Saint Teresa of Avila provides a shining example of this, and many wonderful examples can be found in her "Foundations," which we have spoken about elsewhere.Impatience: A Sign of Pride
In order to effectively root out pride, it is necessary to know how pride manifests itself in the human person. One of the principle signs of pride, the saints tell us, is impatience. As Saint Catherine says, "impatience is the marrow of pride," meaning, it is the center, the meat. Anyone who struggles with impatience struggles against anything that contradicts his own will, and therefore is inordinately attached to his will. Is not attachment to one's own will the root of all sin? Indeed so! This is pride: Self-will.
Saint Catherine of Siena: "For just as impatience shows more clearly than any other sin that the soul is deprived of God---because it is at once evident that since the pith is there, the tree of pride must be there---so patience shows better and more perfectly than any other virtue that God is in the soul by grace."
"I...invite you to a sweet and most holy patience, for without patience we could not please God."
"And all this comes from the tree of Pride, from which oozes out the sap of anger and impatience [...] There is no sin nor wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience."