The proof of true humility is patience: neither meekness of speech, nor humbleness of bearing, nor the giving up of oneself to lowly works, is a sufficient indication by which to judge if a soul is truly humble. There are many who bear all the appearance of exterior humility, but who are angered at every slight adversity and resent any little vexation which they may encounter.
If under certain circumstances we show toleration and patience in bearing an insult, in suffering a wrong in silence without indignation and anger or resentment, it is a good sign, and we may begin to conclude that we have some humility; but even then, patience can only be an infallible sign of true humility when it proceeds from the recognition of our own unworthiness and when we tolerate the wrong because we know that we ourselves are full of faults and are deserving of it.
And how we stand, O my Soul, in regard to this patience? O my God, how much pride I find, even in my patience! Sometimes I suffer a wrong, but at the same time I feel that I am wronged. I suffer an insult, but consider that I do not deserve it. And if others do not esteem me, yet I esteem myself. Is there humility here? Not a vestige of it!
The Holy Fathers attribute to Jesus Christ the words which the Prophet says of himself: “For I am ready for scourges,” (Ps. 37:18), because by reason of our iniquities which He had taken upon Himself, He considered Himself deserving of all the penalties and opprobrium of the world. Here is the pattern of true humility.
Very different is the patience of the philosophers and stoics and the patience of worldly people, from that of true Christians. The stoics taught great patience in their writings and by their example, but it was a patience that was the outcome of pride, self-esteem and contempt for others. The worldly-minded, it is true, bear the many anxieties and afflictions of their own state of life with patience, but it is a patience that proceeds from interested motives, or the necessity of worldly prudence.
Christians alone possess that patience united to humility which receives every adversity with submission to the Divine Will, and this is the patience which is pleasing to God. For, as St. Augustine says: “That which a man does from pride is not pleasing to God, but that which he does from humility is acceptable to Him.”
The following thoughts may sometimes trouble us: Who knows whether my past Confessions have been good? Who knows whether I have had real sorrow for my sins? Who knows if my sins have been forgiven? Who knows whether I am in the grace of God? Who knows whether I shall obtain the grace of final perseverance? And who knows if I am predestined to be saved? But it is not God’s intention that this uncertainty should cause us these anxieties and scruples.
In His infinite wisdom, He has hidden from us the mysteries of His justice and mercy, so that our ignorance should prove a most efficacious help to keep us in humility. Therefore, the profit we ought to derive from such thoughts is this: to live always in fear and humility before God, to do good diligently, and to avoid evil without ever exalting ourselves above others in our self-esteem, because we do not know what our doom may be. “Serve ye the Lord with fear” (Ps. 2:11). “Fear the Lord, all ye His saints” (Ps. 33:10).
Such is the Divine Will toward us, manifested through St. Paul. God expects us always to be humble, whether it be for that which He reveals to us, or for that which He withholds from us.
When we read the Holy Scriptures, we find many prophecies proceeding from the Holy Ghost that terrify us, but many others that console us. When we read the writings of the Holy Fathers, we find in them some judgments that are very terrible and some that are very lenient.
When we read the theological works of the scholastics, we find in them opinions upon the subjects of grace and predestination that alarm us and others that encourage us. Why is this? The Providence of God has thus disposed it, so that between hope and fear we might remain humble.
The mysteries of grace and predestination would no longer be mysteries if we were capable of grasping them with our understanding. To pause and consider whether God has forgiven our sins or not, and whether we are living in a state of grace, or whether we are predestined, etc., is in itself an act of temerity and pride, inasmuch as we are seeking to know the hidden judgments of God, who does not wish us to know them, so that we may remain in humility. “Be not high-minded, but fear,” says St. Paul (Rom. 11:20).
I ought to be most grateful to anyone who helps to keep me in humility by subjecting me to humiliations of word and deed, because he is cooperating with the divine mercy to fulfill the work of my eternal salvation.
And although he has no thought of my salvation when he offends me, he is nevertheless an instrument thereof, and all the evil comes from me if I do not make a good use of it. St. Ambrose says of David when he was insulted by Semei with vituperations and stoning, that he “held his peace and humbled himself,” (Lib. 1, Offic., C. 18), keeping his mind fixed on this one thought: “The Lord hath bid him curse me” (2 Kings 16:10). We are grateful to the surgeon who bleeds us, even though he may not be thinking of our health, but of this particular office of his profession.
Therefore, if we understood this, not as Stoic philosophers, but as good Christians, we ought to be grateful to all those who humiliate us, for although they have no intention of making us humble, but only of humiliating us, yet in reality this humiliation helps us to acquire humility – if such be our desire.
The benefit is a real benefit, although he who confers it has no intention that it should be so. An insult is only an insult in the intention of the man who gives it, and the humiliation belongs only to him who receives it: and it is a most sure means of acquiring and practicing humility, if he knows how to receive it in a Christian spirit.
To this end, God permits us to be humiliated at times, so that we may give a proof of our virtue “in the furnace of humiliation” (Ecclus. 2:5), and the teacher of this wise rule goes on to say: “Humble they heard and endure” (Ecclus. 2:2).
Everything depends upon the way in which we take things. To rule our life by the maxims of the world is certain to inspire pride, and it is equally certain that to rule ourselves by the maxims of the Gospel will inspire humility. According to the world, we should repulse an insult with anger and resentment; but according to the Gospel, we should accept it with a humble, prudent and meek patience. “This saying is hard” (John 6:61).
But how much patience do we not exercise to please the world – patience that is often bitter and hard! And shall it therefore be a “hard saying” that we are to have patience and humility in order to please God? Ah, miserable soul of mine, let us attach to the things of this world the thoughts and ideas and scruples of this world – its obligations and opinions, its politics and loves and caprices! I know well that humility can only be laborious and wearisome in such an atmosphere, so full of worldliness, for as Holy Writ says: “Humility is an abomination to the proud” (Ecclus. 13:24).
But let us rise above the world and its opinions, and in the light of the eternal truth of faith, we shall find that this virtue is not only easy, but sweet and pleasing, because all that Christ has told us is true. And after having exhorted us to learn humility from Him, “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart,” (Matt. 11:29), He immediately added, “For My yoke is sweet and My burden light” (Matt. 11:30). Truth cannot lie; it is we who refuse to listen to it. We are ruled by the world, and so to hear humility spoken of is a “hard saying.” But let us remember that it is a “true saying.” For if we are not humble, we cannot be saved.
This article is taken from a chapter in Humility of Heart by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo which is available from TAN Books.