Of the Excellence of the Virtue of Humility, and the Need We Have of It

by admin on December 12, 2010

LEARN of me, because I am meek and “humble of heart, says Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and ye shall find rest to your souls (Matt. xi. 29). The blessed St. Augustine says: “The whole life of Christ on earth was a lesson to us, and He was master of all virtues, but especially of humil­ity; it was that particularly which He wished us to learn of Him.” That were enough for us to understand how great must be the excellence of this virtue and how great the need that we have of it, since the Son of God came down from heaven to earth to teach it to us and wished to be our special instructor therein, not in word alone, but much more particularly in work, since all His life was an example and living pattern of humility. The glorious St. Basil goes through the whole life of Christ from His birth, showing and reflecting how all His actions teach us par­ticularly this virtue. He chose, he says, to be born of a poor mother, in a poor stable and in a manger, and to be wrapped in poor swaddling clothes. He chose to be circum­cised as a sinner, to fly into Egypt as too weak to protect Himself, to be baptized among sinners and publicans as though He were one of them. Afterwards in the course of His life, when they sought to honor and exalt Him for king, He hid Himself; and when they sought to outrage and dis­honor Him, then He put Himself in their power. When men and even those possessed by devils would extol Him, He bade them be silent; and when they mocked Him, uttering injurious words, He said nothing. And at the end of His life, to leave us a further commendation of this virtue, as His last will and testament, He confirmed it by that marvelous example of washing His disciples’ feet, and that so ignominious death on the Cross.

St. Bernard says: “The Son of God abased and reduced Himself by taking human nature; and all His life He strove to be a pattern of humility, to teach us by deed what He had to teach us by word. Marvelous manner of teaching!” But why, Lord, is so great a majesty so humbled ? Ut non apponat ultra magnificare se homo super terram (Psalm ix. 18)—”That from this time forth there may be no man daring to be proud and lift himself up upon the earth.” It was always folly and impudence for man to be proud; but particularly now that the Majesty of God has abased and humbled Himself, says St. Bernard, “it is shamelessness intolerable and gross vulgarity for a vile worm of a man to seek to be regarded and esteemed. The Son of God, equal to His Father, takes the form of a servant and chooses to be humbled and treated with ignominy; and do I, dust and ashes, seek to be regarded and esteemed?”

Christian Humility consists in True Contempt of Oneself

With good reason does the Redeemer of the world say that He is the master of this virtue, and that we must learn it of Him; for this virtue of humility is one which neither Plato nor Socrates nor Aristotle knew how to teach. While they treated of other virtues, as fortitude, temper­ance, and justice, the heathen philosophers were so far from being humble that in these very acts and in all their vir­tues their aim was to be well thought of and bequeath a memory of themselves to posterity. A Diogenes and oth­ers like him spoke well, inasmuch as they showed them­selves despisers of the world and of themselves, in poor clothes, in poverty, and in abstinence; but in the very act of doing that they showed great pride, seeking by that means to be admired and esteemed, while they despised others, as Plato shrewdly observed to Diogenes. One day Plato invited sundry philosophers, and among them Dioge­nes, to dinner. He had his house well decked out, his car­pets laid down, and much other preparation, as befitted the dignity of such guests. Diogenes, on coming in, began trampling with his dirty feet on those carpets. Plato said to him: “What are you about?” He said: “I am trampling on and bringing down the pomp and pride of Plato.” Plato answered very well: “So you are, but with other pride;” meaning that he was showing more pride in trampling on his carpets than himself in keeping such furniture. Those philosophers did not attain to true contempt of themselves, in which Christian humility consists. They did not even know the virtue of humility so much as by name; it is our peculiar virtue taught by Christ.

To Be Poor in Spirit means to be Humble

St. Augustine remarks that hereby began that master­ful Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. v. 3). St. Augus­tine, St. Jerome, and other saints say that by poor in spirit is to be understood the humble. By this the Redeemer of the world began His preaching, by this He went on with it, by this He concluded it; this He taught us all His life long, this He wished us to learn of Him. St. Augustine says: “He did not say, learn of Me to make heaven and earth, learn of Me to do wonders and miracles, to heal the sick, cast out devils, to raise the dead, but, learn of Me to be meek and humble of heart.” Better the humble man who serves God than the man who works miracles. This is the plain and sure way; the other is full of pitfalls and dangers.

The need that we have of this virtue is so great that with­out it it is impossible to take one step in the service of God. The glorious St. Augustine says: “All our works must be guarded and accompanied by humility in the begin­ning, in the middle, and at the end; for if we are ever so little careless and allow vain complacency to come in, all will be carried away by the wind of pride.” Little will it profit us that the work in itself be good; rather on that account we have greater reason to fear the vice of pride and vainglory; since other vices are concerned with sin and evil things—envy, anger, lust—and so carry on them a label bidding us beware of them, but pride goes after good works to destroy them. The man was prosperously under way with his heart set on heaven, since at starting he had directed to God what he was doing; when suddenly there comes a squall of vanity and throws him on a rock; he desires to please men and be regarded and esteemed by them; he takes thereon some vain complacency, whereupon his bark founders entirely. So St. Gregory and St. Ber­nard say very well: “He who seeks to gain virtues without humility, is like one carrying a little dust or ashes in the teeth of the wind; it is all scattered, all blown away by the gale”—Qui sine humilitate virtutes congregat, quasi in ventum pulverem portat.

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