A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 12 : The Humility of Proficients

"The Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give His life a redemption for many."
Matt. 20:28

Since we are discussing here especially the moral virtues that have a special connection with the theological virtues and the life of union with God, we must consider what humility should be in proficients.

The importance and nature of this Christian virtue show clearly the distance which separates the acquired virtues described by the pagan philosophers from the infused virtues spoken of in the Gospel. In speaking of prudence, we recalled the distance between them, which is based on a distinction of nature. We shall get a clearer idea of this distance in speaking of humility, and even more in considering this virtue in our model, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Humility is considered in all Christian tradition as the foundation of the spiritual life, since it removes pride, which is, says Holy Scripture, the beginning of every sin because it separates us from God. Thus humility has often been compared to the excavation which must be dug for the erection of a building, an excavation which should be so much the deeper in proportion as the building is to be higher. From this point of view, as we have seen,(1) the two principal pillars of the temple to be built are faith and hope, and its dome is charity.

Humility ought certainly to repress pride under all its forms, including intellectual and spiritual pride, which we have already discussed.(2) But the principal, essential act and the highest act of humility is not, to be exact, the actual repression of movements of pride. It is evident, in fact, that in our Lord and in Mary there never was a first movement of pride to repress, and nevertheless there was in them and there still is the eminent exercise of the virtue of humility. What is, therefore, the essentially characteristic act of humility, first toward God, then toward our neighbor?


The act proper to humility consists in bowing toward the earth, called humus in Latin, from which the name of this virtue is derived. To speak without metaphor, its essential act consists in abasing ourselves before God and adore what is of God in every creature. To abase ourselves before the Most High is to recognize, not only in a speculative but in a practical manner, our inferiority, littleness, and indigence, manifest in us even though we are innocent, and, once we have sinned, it consists in recognizing our wretchedness.

Thus humility is united to obedience and religion, but it differs from them. Obedience is concerned with the authority of God and His precepts; religion considers His excellence and the worship due Him. Humility, by inclining us toward the earth, recognizes our littleness, our poverty, and in its way glorifies the majesty of God. It sings His glory as when the archangel Michael said: "Who is like to God?" The interior soul experiences a holy joy in annihilating itself, as it were, before God to recognize practically that He alone is great and that, in comparison with His, all human greatness is empty of truth like a lie.

Humility thus conceived is based on truth, especially on the truth that there is an infinite distance between the Creator and the creature. The more this distance appears to us in a living and concrete manner, the more humble we are. However lofty the creature may be, this abyss is always infinite; and the higher we ascend, the more evident does this infinite abyss become for us. In this sense, the highest soul is the most humble, because the most enlightened: the Blessed Virgin Mary is more humble than all the saints, and our Lord is far more humble than His holy Mother.

We see the connection of humility with the theological virtues by determining its twofold dogmatic basis, which was unknown to the pagan philosophers. At its root are two dogmas. Primarily, it is based on the mystery of creation ex nihilo, which the philosophers of antiquity did not know, at least explicitly, but which reason can know by its natural powers. We have been created from nothing; this is the basis of humility according to the light of right reason.(3)

Humility is also based (4) on the mystery of grace and on the necessity of actual grace for the slightest salutary act. This mystery exceeds the natural powers of reason; it is known by faith, and it is expressed in these words of the Savior: "Without Me you can do nothing" (5) in the order of salvation.

From this principle spring four consequences in respect to God the Creator, to His providence and to His goodness, which is at once the source of grace and of the remission of sin.

First of all, in relation to God the Creator, we should recognize not only speculatively, but practically and concretely, that of ourselves we are nothing: "My substance is as nothing before Thee." (6) "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" (7) We were created out of nothing by a sovereignly free fiat of God, by His love of benevolence, which preserves us in existence, without which we would be immediately annihilated. Furthermore, after creation, though there are a number of beings, there is no increase in reality, no increase of perfection, wisdom, or love; for before creation the infinite plenitude of divine perfection already existed. Therefore in comparison with God we are not.

If all that comes from God were taken away from even our best free acts, strictly speaking nothing would remain, for in such an act one part does not come from us and the other from God. The act is entirely from God as from its first cause, and it is entirely from us as from its second cause. Thus the fruit of a tree is entirely from God as from its first cause and entirely from the tree as from Its second cause. We should recognize practically that without God, the Creator and Preserver of all things, we are nothing.

Secondly, in regard to Providence, without God the supreme Ordainer, without His providence which directs all things, our life completely lacks direction. We should, therefore, humbly receive from Him the general direction of the precepts that we may reach eternal life, and the particular direction that the Most High  has chosen from all eternity for each one of us. This particular direction is manifested to us by our superiors, who are intermediaries between God and us, by counsels to which we should have recourse, by events, by the inspirations of the Holy Ghost. Consequently we should humbly accept the place, it may perhaps be very modest, which God has willed from all eternity for each one of us. Thus in the religious life, according to the divine will, some should be like the branches of the tree, others like flowers, others like roots hidden in the earth. Yet the root is most useful; it draws from the soil the secretions that constitute the sap necessary for the nourishment of the tree. If all its roots were cut, the tree would die; but it would not die were all its branches and flowers cut. Humility, which leads a Christian, a religious, to accept a hidden place very willingly, is extremely fruitful not only for himself but for others. Christ in His sorrowful life humbly wished the last place, that in which Barabbas was preferred to Him, the opprobrium of the cross; by so doing He became the corner stone in the edifice of the kingdom of God: "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. By the Lord this has been done; and it is wonderful in our eyes." (8) St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: "You are no more strangers. . . , but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone." (9)

Such is the solid, marvelously fruitful humility, which even in the most hidden places sings the glory of God. We ought, therefore, to receive humbly the special direction He has chosen for us, even though it should lead us to profound immolation: "The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to hell and bringeth back again. . . . He humbleth and He exalteth." (10) This is one of the most beautiful recurrent themes in the Scriptures.

Thirdly, in this special direction chosen by God for us, we cannot take the slightest step forward, or perform the least salutary and meritorious act without the help of an actual grace. We need this grace particularly to persevere to the end and should, consequently, humbly ask. for it.

Even if we had a high degree of sanctifying grace and charity, ten talents for example, we should still need an actual grace for the least salutary act. And especially for a happy death we need the great gift of final perseverance, which we must daily ask for in the Hail Mary with humility and confidence. Christian humility says joyfully with St. Paul: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God." (11) "No man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost." (12) In short, humility should recognize practically and a little better every day the majesty of God the Creator, the Ordainer of all things, and the Author of grace.

Finally, while humility, which recognizes our indigence, should be found in all the just and should be in the innocent man, it is after we commit sin that we should recognize practically not only our indigence, but our wretchedness: the baseness of our selfish, narrow hearts, of our inconstant wills, of our vacillating, whimsical, ungovernable characters; the wretched weaknesses of our minds, guilty of unpardonable forgetfulness and contradictions that they could and should avoid; the wretchedness of pride, of concupiscence, which leads to indifference to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. This wretchedness is beneath nothingness itself since it is a disorder, and it occasionally plunges our souls into a contemptible state of abjection.

The Divine Office often reminds us in the Miserere of these great truths: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. . . . To Thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before Thee. . . . Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow: .. . . Turn away Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God; and renew a right spirit Within my bowels. . . . Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation." (13) "Who can understand sins? From my secret ones, cleanse me, 0 Lord." (14)

How greatly this abasement of genuine humility differs from pusillanimity, which is born of human respect or of spiritual sloth! Contrary to magnanimity, pusillanimity refuses the necessary labor. Humility, far from being opposed to grandeur of soul, is united to it. A Christian should tend toward great things worthy of great honor, but he should tend toward them humbly and, if necessary, by the way of great humiliations.(15) He should learn to say often: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to Thy name give glory." (16)

The pusillanimous man is one who refuses to do what he can and should do; he may sin mortally when he refuses to accomplish what is gravely obligatory. Humility, on the contrary, abases man before the Most High that he may take his true place. It abases him before God only to allow God to act more freely in him. Far from becoming discouraged, the humble soul entrusts itself to God and, if the Lord does great things through it, it does not glorify itself any more than the ax in the hands of the woodsman, than the harp in the hands of the harpist. With the Blessed Virgin Mary, the humble soul says: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word."


Writing on the subject of humility toward our neighbor, St. Thomas says in a manner as simple as profound: "Wherefore every man, in respect of that which is his own, ought to subject himself to every neighbor, in respect of that which the latter has of God's." (17)

In fact, every man, considering that of himself he is nothing, that what he has of himself is only his indigence, defectibility, and deficiencies, ought not only in a speculative way but also in a practical way to recognize that all he has of himself as coming from himself, is inferior to what every other man has from God in the order of nature and that of grace.

The holy doctor adds in substance: It is possible, without falsehood, to deem and avow ourselves the most despicable of men, as regards the hidden faults which we acknowledge in ourselves and the hidden gifts of God which others have.(18) For this reason the Psalmist says: "From my secret ones [sins], cleanse me, O Lord." (19) St. Augustine says also: "Consider that certain people are in a hidden way better than you are, although you may appear morally superior to them." (20)

We should also say with St. Augustine: "There is no sin committed by another which I, by reason of my own frailty, may not commit; and if I have not committed it, it is because God in His mercy has not permitted it and has preserved me in goodness." (21) We should give God the glory for our not having fallen and say to Him in the words of Scripture: "Create a clean heart in me, 0 God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels." (22) "Convert me, and I shall be converted." (23) "Look Thou upon me, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor." (24)

St. Thomas says: "Since God's love is the cause of goodness in things, no one thing would be better than another if God did not will greater good for one than for another." (25) "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" (26) This truth leads the saints to say to themselves when they see a criminal about to undergo the last punishment: "If this man had received the same graces that I have been receiving for so many years, he would perhaps have been less unfaithful than I. And if God had permitted in my life the sins which He permitted in this man's, I would be in his place and he in mine." "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" This is the true basis of Christian humility. All pride should break against these divine words.

The humility of the saints thus becomes ever more profound, for they experience increasingly their own frailty in contrast with the majesty and the goodness of God. We should tend toward this humility of the saints, but should not employ the formulas they use so long as we are not profoundly convinced that they are true. Should we do so, our humility would evidently be false; in comparison with the true virtue, it is like a paste diamond.

Humility toward our neighbor, thus defined by St. Thomas, differs greatly from human respect and pusillanimity. Human respect (timor mundanus) is the fear of the judgment and wrath of the wicked; this fear turns us away from God. Pusillanimity refuses the necessary toil; it flees the great things it should accomplish and inclines toward base things. Humility, on the other hand, makes us abase ourselves nobly before God and before what is of God in our neighbor. The humble man does not abase himself before the power of the wicked; thus he differs, says St. Thomas, from the ambitious man who abases himself far more than he should to obtain what he desires, and makes himself a lackey in order to attain power.

Humility does not flee great things; on the contrary it strengthens magnanimity by making man tend humbly toward lofty things. These two virtues, which support each other like the arches of a vault, are complementary. They are magnificently presented to us in our Lord when He says: "The Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister [this is humility], and to give His life a redemption for many [this is magnanimity with zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls]." (27) Our Savior could not tend to greater things and tend more humbly toward them: He willed to give us eternal life by the way of the humiliations of His passion and cross. Thus, all proportion being kept, these two virtues, which in appearance are so contradictory, are united in the saints. The humble John the Baptist did not fear the anger of Herod when he reproved him for his immoral conduct; the apostles in their humility did not fear the opposition of men; they were magnanimous even to martyrdom. There is something similar in all the saints, and the more humble they are, the stronger they are, the less they fear human opinions, however formidable these may be. We have an example of this courage in the humble and intrepid Vincent de Paul facing Jansenist pride, which he recognized and denounced, in order to preserve for souls the grace of frequent Communion.

Practically, what must we do to reach the perfection of humility, without which we cannot have that of charity? Our attitude toward praise and reproach is of great importance. In regard to praise, we must not laud ourselves; by so doing we would soil ourselves, as the Italian proverb says: "Chi si loda, s'imbroda." Men praise themselves when they think they are not sufficiently praised by others. Furthermore, we must not seek praise; should we do this, we would render ourselves ridiculous and lose the merit of our good acts. Lastly, we should not take pleasure in praise when it comes; to do so would be to lose, if not the merit of our good actions, at least the flower of merit.

We must, however, mount still higher by acting as we should in regard to reproaches. We must patiently accept deserved reproaches, especially when they come from superiors who have the right and the duty to make them. If we pout, we lose the benefit of these just observations. It is also fitting that we accept patiently at times a reproach that is only slightly deserved or undeserved. Thus, while still a novice, St. Thomas was unjustly reproved for a so­called mistake in Latin while reading in the refectory. He corrected himself as he had been told to do; later at recreation his brethren were astonished and said to him: "You were right. Why did you correct yourself?" "It is better in the eyes of God," answered the saint, "to make a mistake in grammar than to fail in obedience and humility." Lastly, we would do well to ask for a love of contempt, keeping in mind the examples of the saints. When our Lord asked St: John of the Cross: "What do you wish for a reward?" the saint replied: "To be scorned and to suffer for love of Thee." His prayer was granted a few days later in the most painful manner; he as treated like an unworthy religious in a scarcely credible fashion. Likewise St. Francis of Assisi said to Brother Leo: "If when we arrive this evening at the door of the convent, the brother porter does not wish to open the door for us, if he takes us for thieves and receives us with blows and leaves us outside all night in the rain and cold, then we must say: Santa letizia, that is, what joy, 0 Lord, to suffer for Thee and to become a little like Thee." The saints reached even this height.

St. Anselm admirably described the degrees of humility: "(1) to acknowledge ourselves contemptible; (2) to grieve on account of this; (3) to admit that we are so; (4) to wish our neighbor to believe it; (5) patiently to endure people's saying it; (6) willingly to be treated as a person worthy of contempt; (7) to love to be treated in this fashion." (28)

These higher degrees are stated in all books of piety but, as St. Teresa says: "The disposition to practice this (the higher degrees of humility) must be, in my opinion, the gift of God; for it seems to me a supernatural good." (29) They presuppose a certain infused contemplation of the humility of the Savior crucified for us and the ardent desire to become like to Him.

It is certainly fitting to tend to this lofty perfection. Rare are they who attain it; but before reaching it, the interior soul has many occasions to recall these words of Jesus, which are so simple, profound, and truly imitable, all proportion being kept: "The Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many." (30) This is the deepest humility united to the loftiest grandeur of soul.

In our way we should also follow the Savior and gradually be conformed to Him. For this reason we shall devote the following chapter to a consideration of the humility of Jesus as the eminent exemplar of ours.(31)



1. Cf. supra, chap 7.

2. Cf. Vol. I, chap. II.

3. Acquired humility is conceived from this point of view.

4. Infused humility is understood here.

5. John 15:5.

6. Ps. 38:6.

7. Cf. I Cor. 4:7.

8. Matt. 21:42.

9. Eph.2:19f.

10. Cf. I Kings 2:6 f.

11. Cf. II Cor. 3:5.

12. Cf. I Cor. 12:3.

13. Ps. 50, passim.

14. Ps. 18:13.

15. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.161, a. I: "A twofold virtue is necessary with regard to the difficult good: one, to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately; and this belongs to the virtue of humility: and another to strengthen the mind against despair and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity." Ibid., a.2 ad 3um; q.129, a'3 ad 4um. These two virtues are complementary like the two sides of an ogive. The virtues, from the fact that they are connected, grow together like the five fingers of the hand. Consequently one cannot have profound humility without true nobility of soul or magnanimity.

16. Ps.113:1.

17. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 161, a.3.

18. Ibid., a.6 ad 1um.

19. Ps.I8:I3.

20. De Virginitate, chap. 52.

21. We read this statement in substance in the Confessions, Bk. II, chap. 7.

22. Ps. 50: 12.

23. Jer. 31: 18.

24. Ps. 24: 16.

25. Cf. Ia, q.20, a.3.

26. Cf. I Cor. 4:7.

27. Matt. 20: 28.

28. Lib. de similitudinibus, chaps. 01-9, quoted by St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 161, a.6 ad 3um.

29. Life by herself, chap. 31; The Way of Perfection, chap. 12.

30. Matt. 20: 28.

31. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III, chaps. 4-7, in which the saint discusses humility, the voluntary recognition of our abjection and nothingness. Humility conceals the other virtues and seeks to hide itself; it scarcely speaks of humility. Humility which does not produce generosity is without a doubt false. Humility does not neglect the care of a good reputation, but it endures contempt with joy.