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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 13 : The Humility of the Word Made Flesh and What Ours Should Be

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who . . . emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant."
Phil. 2: 5-7

In studying humility, we should consider how it was practiced
by our Lord Himself, whose example we should follow, and see how this abasement is united in Him to the highest virtues.


In the second chapter of his epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul, wishing to exhort us to humility, speaks of the infinite majesty of the Savior that we may better see to what an extent He humbled Himself. The union of these two extremes is amazing, and should be found to some extent in Christian perfection.

In this celebrated passage, St. Paul teaches clearly the eternal preexistence of the divine person of Christ. He tells us: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross."

"Being in the form of God. . ." The word "form" in St. Paul's text designates intimate, fundamental, essential being; in this case, the nature of God. In other words, although the only Son of the Father is truly God, "the brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance," as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews,(1) He did not eagerly retain His equality with God.

Lucifer, on the contrary, though only a creature, wished to be equal to God and not to recognize in practice any master superior to himself. In the error of his pride, he exclaimed: "I will be like he Most High," (2) and in order to tempt us he tells us: "You shall be as gods." (3)

Jesus, who is truly God, emptied Himself. St. Paul here affirms the divinity of Christ as clearly as it is expressed in the prologue to St. John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him."(4)

"He emptied Himself." How? He did not lose His divine nature; He remained what He was, but He took or assumed our poor human nature. In coming down from heaven, He did not leave it, but He began to dwell on earth in the humblest condition. In this sense He emptied Himself. Whereas the divine nature is the infinite plenitude of all perfections, human nature is as if empty, although it aspires to plenitude; the human intellect is at the beginning like a blank page on which nothing is written. The only Son of God emptied Himself, taking our human nature, which is infinitely below the divine nature, and even below the purely spiritual nature of the angels, even of the lowest among them.

"He took the form of a servant," for man, God's creature, is the servant of the Most High. The only Son of the Father therefore took in His divine person the nature of a servant, the condition of a slave, so that one and the same person might be the Son of God and the Son of man, that the same person might be the only Son begotten from all eternity and the Infant in the crib at Bethlehem and the Man of sorrows nailed to the cross.

"Being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man." He wished to be rendered like His brethren in all things, sin excepted; even more, He wished to be born among the poor. He was cold and hungry, like a man of humble condition. He was tired and worn out, as we are and more than we are.

St. Paul adds, penetrating far more deeply into this mystery: "He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death." The God-man humbled Himself. We read in Ecclesiasticus: "The greater thou art, the more humble thyself in all things, and thou shalt find grace before God: for great is the power of God alone, and He is honored by the humble." (5) For this reason Christ Himself tells us: "Learn of Me because I am meek, and humble of heart." (6)

The sign of humility is obedience. Pride, on the contrary, inclines us to do our own will and to seek what exalts us, not to wish to be directed by others, but to direct them. Obedience is opposed to this pride. The only Son of the Father came down from heaven to save us, to cure our pride, becoming obedient unto death, and even to the death of the cross.

Obedience renders our acts and sufferings meritorious to such an extent that, useless as they may appear, they may become very fruitful. One of the marvels accomplished by our Savior is to have rendered fruitful what was most useless, that is, suffering. He glorified it by obedience and love. Obedience is great, heroic, when man does not refuse death and does not flee ignominy. Now the death of the Word made flesh was most ignominious. It was announced by the Book of Wisdom, in the words of the impious directed against the wise man par excellence: "Let us condemn him to the most shameful death." (7) Death on the cross was considered precisely by the Romans and Jews as an infamous and horrible torture reserved to slaves. We read in Deuteronomy: "He is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree." (8) And St. Paul says to the Galatians: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law [which is powerless to justify us], being, made a curse for us; for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.' "(9) This abasement was necessary before Christ entered into His glory as Redeemer.

Likewise in the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks of "the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasure of the Egyptians." (10) Farther on, he says: "Jesus, the author and finisher of faith . . . endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God." (11)

We can thus see how the cross of the Savior was "a stumbling block" for the Jews.(12) They had to believe that the wood of malediction became the instrument of salvation, that He who was fastened to it, instead of being accursed of God, was to become the source of every grace, the object of love and adoration.(13)

All that St. Paul says is already contained in the mystery of the nativity of the Lord, who came down from heaven for our salvation, as the Credo states. The infant Jesus foresaw all these painful and glorious events. As we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "When He cometh into the world, He saith: 'Sacrifice and oblation [of the Old Law] Thou wouldst not; but a body Thou hast fitted to Me. . . . Then said I: Behold, I come to do Thy will, O God.' "(14) This heroic example of humble obedience should be always before our eyes.

The liturgy of Christmas continually recalls this example by contrasting the humility and the majesty of our Savior:

Memento, salutis auctor,
Quod nostri quondam corporis
Ex illibata Virgine
Nascendo formam sumpseris.
Author of grace, sweet Savior mine,
Remember that Thy flesh divine
From the unsullied Virgin came,
Made like unto our mortal frame.

And in the office for Christmas we read these words of Pope St. Leo: "The two natures, divine and human, without losing their properties, are united in a single person; humility is sustained by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. If the Savior were not truly God, He would not bring the remedy; and if He were not truly man, He would not be an example for us."

In the nativity of Jesus everything speaks to us of His humility. We read in St. Luke: "She brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." (15) There was no room for the Word of God made flesh; a fact we must not forget when there is no room for us. The first adorers were poor shepherds "watching, and keeping the night-watches over their flock" But a multitude of angels descended from heaven singing: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will" 16

The two extremes are united: "The Word was made flesh." It is the joining of supreme riches and perfect poverty to give men redemption and peace. It is impossible to conceive a more intimate union of a more profound humility and a more lofty dignity. The two infinitely distant extremes are intimately united; God alone could do it. It is not only beautiful, it is sublime, an extreme elevation in the order of the spiritually beautiful. It is what makes the grandeur of Christ's physiognomy. He always tends toward very great things, worthy of the greatest honor, but He tends to them most humbly with full submission to the will of His Father and acceptance in advance of all the humiliations of the Passion and cross, which He foresees from His infancy. He exemplifies the closest union of perfect humility and loftiest magnanimity.


In what regard must we imitate Christ in the union of humility and Christian dignity? How can we harmonize these two extremes in our lives: a humility which should always grow and the keen desire for perfection and union with God? On the one hand, the Lord tells us to abase ourselves, so much so that we cannot humble ourselves too greatly, and on the other hand, we read in Scripture: "Be ye also perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."

How can we harmonize "this abasement which is demanded of us, with the ardent desire for our progress? Souls fear to fail in humility by aspiring to a union with God of which they feel unworthy. The Jansenists went so far as to say that out of humility one should only rarely receive Communion. This practical difficulty exists especially, it is true, for souls that have lost the superior simplicity which comes from grace; but it may exist for us when we have to distinguish between true and false humility in ourselves. We experience it particularly when we must defend our way of living against that of others. At the beginning of the discussion we may speak solely for love of truth, but if we are constrained, often we reply with the impatience and pride of wounded self-love.

The simplest souls find the solution of this problem in rereading what Scripture says about the union of these two extremes: "Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven." (17) "Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in the time of visitation: casting all your care upon Him for He hath care of you." (18) "Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you." (19) "The Lord killeth and maketh alive, He bringeth down to hell and bringeth back again. The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich, He humbleth and He exalteth." (20)

The union of deep humility and supernatural magnanimity is particularly mysterious in the saints. In this respect they reproduce the life of the Savior, while remaining far from His perfection. This point must be emphasized, for in it is a great lesson for us. On the one hand, the saints declare that they are the least of men because of their infidelity to grace, and on the other hand they have a superhuman dignity. For example, St. Paul says of himself: "He rose again the third day. . . and was seen by Cephas, and after that by the eleven. Then he was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once. . . and last of all He was seen also by me as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God." (21) He even speaks of the infirmities that humiliate him and oblige him to pray God to come to his relief.(22)

On the other hand, when St. Paul had to defend his ministry against false apostles, he wrote with magnanimity: "They are Hebrews: so am I. . . . They are the ministers of Christ (I speak as one less wise): I am more; in many more labors, in prisons more frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often. . . . Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned." (23) He enumerates his labors, his cares; he even speaks of the visions and revelations he received from God. But finally, reverting to a deeper humility he writes: "And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me [that I might not become proud]. For which thing thrice I be sought the Lord that it might depart from me. And He said to me: 'My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity.' Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me." (24)

In his commentary on this chapter of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Thomas speaks admirably of the union of humility and magnanimity in St. Paul. He writes as follows: "As charity is the root of the virtues, pride is the beginning of every sin.(25) It is the inordinate desire of our own excellence: we desire it then without subordinating it to God. Thus we turn away from Him, which is the beginning of every sin; for this reason God resists the proud.(26) As there is in good people the good of which they may become proud, God sometimes permits some infirmity in His elect, some defect, and occasionally a mortal sin, which prevents them from becoming proud, which truly humiliates them, and makes them recognize that they cannot hold out or persevere by their own strength. The apostle St. Paul in particular might have grown proud of many things: he was a vessel of election to carry the faith to the Gentiles; (27) he had been ravished to the third heaven and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter; (28) he had suffered greatly for Christ, several times he had been cast into prison, and scourged; he was a virgin (having obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful); (29) he had labored more than all, as he says; (30) and in particular he had a lofty knowledge of divine things which may be the source of pride. For this reason the Lord gave him a remedy for pride. That the excellence of the revelations made to him might not make him proud, he received a sting in the flesh, a humiliating infirmity which crucified his body in order to heal his soul. . . . As he says, an angel of Satan came and buffeted him. How the sinner should tremble if the great Apostle, the instrument of election, is not sure of himself! Three times he ardently begged the Lord to deliver him from this sting; three times, that is, often and urgently. He then heard these words: 'My grace is sufficient for thee,' it will preserve thee from sin. Divine power is shown in weakness, which is an occasion for the exercise of the virtues of humility, patience, and abnegation. The man who knows his weakness is more attentive to resisting it and, because he struggles, he grows in strength. 'Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities,' says St. Paul, since I am thus more humble, and I must fight that the power of Christ may dwell in me and bear all its fruits of grace." (31)

Something similar occurred in the life of St. Peter, who was humiliated because he denied our Lord during the Passion. Peter thus lost all presumption and placed his confidence no longer in himself, but in God alone.

The principle of the harmonizing of humility and Christian magnanimity is expressed in these words of St. Paul: "We have this treasure [of divine truth] in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God and not of us." (32) One of the most beautiful formulas of the harmonizing of humility and magnanimity is the following, taken from the works of St. Thomas: "The servant of God should always consider himself a beginner and always tend toward a more perfect and holy life without ever stopping." (33)

Thus in the great saints humility and magnanimity are harmonized; they tend toward great things in the midst of trials and humiliations. There is, however, always an immense difference between them and the Savior; Christ who was most humble is sinless, without the slightest fault to deplore, most humble in His absolute impeccability and His sovereign dignity.

In the Blessed Virgin Mary, due proportion being kept, there is something similar. She was preserved from every sin, and in her Magnificat she appears at one and the same time very humble and very great, terrible to the demon: "My soul doth magnify the Lord. . . . He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because He that is mighty hath done great things to me. . . . He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble." (34)

Something analogous appears also for our consolation in the life of the Church, the spouse of Christ. Throughout its history Christ's words are verified: "Everyone that exalteth himself, shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (35) Christ made this statement when He spoke of the guests who took the first places, and again in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.(36) In persecutions the Church often seems conquered; yet it is always victorious. In its humility it tends toward the great things which are the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Lastly, there should be something similar in every Christian, especially in every religious. He must be truly humble like a root hidden under the ground, and he should always tend toward these great things, a more living faith, a more firm hope, a more ardent charity, a union with God that is daily more intimate, pure, and strong. Thus extremes are harmonized, like the deep root of the tree which symbolizes humility and the loftiest branch which is the figure of charity. All the virtues are connected and grow together, just as the root buries itself ever deeper in the soil, while the tallest branch reaches up toward heaven.

Thus in the mystical body of the Savior should be realized what St. Leo said of Christ Himself: "Humility is sustained by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity." Gradually in the mystical body of Christ "that which is mortal, may be swallowed up by life." (37) "For this corruptible must put on incorruption," (38) that the mystery of the redemption may be accomplished, that the incarnate Word may apply to us the fruit of His merits and be actually and fully the Author of salvation.

What majesty there is in the title Salutis auctor! And how well united it is with these words: "Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls." (39) May the Savior grant us the grace to become like to Him. We have no true humility except that which He gives us; therefore we must sincerely beg it of Him and accept the road which leads to it.


"He humbled Himself. . . even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted Him, and hath given Him a name which is above all names."
Phil. 2:8 f.

(We reproduce here a manuscript that has come into our possession, and have added some explanatory notes. It is a meditation on the glory of Christ in relation to the depth of His humiliations and sufferings.)

"For God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son." (1) In the great mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of ineffable love, there is a core which is impenetrable to human reason, a secret which God alone reveals: the reason for the immense sufferings of the redemptive Passion.

If, in the presence of the crucifix, each Christian can say: "Jesus crucified, pledge of the love of my Father," not one is capable of telling the reason which motivated the decree of the Passion and death of the Son of God. This decree is the secret of divine love.(2)

We adore the excesses of humiliation, the indescribable ignominies to which the incarnate Word subjected Himself in obedience to His Father and through love of men, His brethren, but we cannot explain these excesses, this ocean of sufferings, until the Lord Himself lifts the veil covering this "holy of holies." Then the mystery still remains a mystery, but the soul, enlightened regarding its secret, contemplates in ecstasy the ineffable harmonies of the divine masterpiece: the glory of the redemptive cross.

The words of holy Scripture: "I will not give My glory to another," (3) sum up what is hidden in this secret of the passion and death of Christ Jesus, and contain at the same time the marvelous harmony of all the divine words.

From all eternity God willed the Incarnation of the Word, His Son, as Redeemer of the world and head of redeemed humanity. In our Lord Jesus Christ [habitual] grace has for its principal end the most eminent union that God can grant to a created nature, that is, the hypostatic union, by which the Son of Mary, while enjoying the beatific vision from the moment of His incarnation, could affirm:"The Father and I are one." This grace was given to Jesus Christ for the end which determined His coming to earth: this end is no other than the satisfaction which, as head of His mystical body, He was to offer to the thrice holy God.

However, by reason of the infinite dignity of the person of the Word, a single drop of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ would have sufficed to redeem a thousand worlds, did they exist. Therefore, not in the necessity of redeeming sinful humanity should we seek the motive for the excesses of the most holy passion and death of Christ. Let us seek it, rather, in the splendors of the glory of the Incarnation (or of the manifestation of the radiating goodness of the Savior), because it is there that we shall find it. The essential glory of God, the incommunicable and essential glory of the adorable Trinity became in the mystery of the Incarnation the magnificent portion of the sacred humanity of Jesus, as the Eagle of the Evangelists says in the prologue to his Gospel: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we saw His glory, the glory as It were of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth." (4)

The excesses of the sorrow and humiliation of the passion and death of our Lord were the compensation demanded by divine wisdom, which does all things with weight and measure, in exchange for the ineffable glory which the God-man would enjoy eternally.(5) "I will not give My glory to another." Yahve had spoken through His prophet, and these words were not belied, not even in favor of the incarnate Word, since by His passion and death our Lord Jesus Christ not only snatched the entire world from the domination of Satan and death, but in addition He won for His most sacred humanity the right to be enthroned in the eternal tabernacles at the right hand of the Father. Our Lord alluded to the necessity of conquering this right (6) on the evening of His resurrection when He said to the disciples of Emmaus: "O foolish, and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have spoken. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?" (7) In fact, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ is admirable, indescribable, since it is the glory of the only Son of the Father, and as such this glory exceeds the capacity of comprehension of human and angelic intellects; only God Himself can fully appreciate it, since He alone knows Himself perfectly.

Although the glory of the only Son is ineffable, a Gospel text gives us a little light on the subject: "He that believeth in Me, as the Scripture saith, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (8) Jesus spoke this to all in a loud voice on the feast of tabernacles. And the Evangelist St. John adds: "This He said of the Spirit which they should receive who believed in Him." To give the Holy Ghost to souls is the glory of the risen Christ, a glory that is unique, ineffable. Sacred Scripture continues: "For as yet the Spirit was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." (9) The Holy Ghost will be given on Pentecost when, through the humiliations of His passion and death, the Lord Jesus will enter into His glory because "he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted." (10)

And who has ever humbled himself like the Pontiff of the New Law, Christ our Lord? Consequently, in justice no one ever was or ever will be as exalted as He: "He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted Him and hath given Him a name which is above all names: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father." (11) O gloria crucis.(12)

The pages just quoted throw special light on the Savior's humiliations, the dark night of His passion, and also on the night through which the saints must pass. This manuscript enables us to understand better what St. John of the Cross wrote about the night of the soul, and the reparatory sufferings which great servants of God like St. Paul of the Cross have had to bear. It is a well-known fact that having been raised to the transforming union at the age of thirty-one, St. Paul of the Cross spent forty-five years in continual and most profound interior sufferings for the salvation of sinners. He was closely configured to Jesus crucified: the depths, the duration, the continuity of his sufferings were proportioned to the "eternal weight of glory," to use the expression of St. Paul, which he was to receive in heaven.

Thus we see the elevation of the infused virtues and what the progress of humility should be in proficients and the perfect: "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (13)



1. Heb. 1:3.

2. Isa. 14: 14.

3. Gen. 3:5.

4. John 1:1, 18.

5. Ecclus. 3:20f.

6. Matt. 11:29.

7. Wisd.2:20.

8. Deut. 21:23.

9. Gal. 3:13.

10. Heb. 11:26; cf.13:13.

11. Ibid., 12:2.

12. Cf.. I Cor. 1:23.

13. Cf. J. M. Voste, O.P., Studia ]oannea, p. 323.

14. Heb. 10:5,9.

15. Luke 2:7.

16. Ibid., 2: 14.

17. Matt. 18:4.

18. Cf. I Pet. 5:6f.

19. Jas. 4: 10.

20. Cf. I Kings 2:6f.

21. Cf. I Cor. 15:4-9.

22. Cf. II Cor. 12:7.

23. Ibid., 11:22-25.

24. Ibid., 12:7-9.

25. Ct. Ecclus. 10: 15.

26. Jas. 4:6.

27. Acts 9:15.

28. Cf. II Cor. 12:4.

29. Cf. I Cor. 7:25.

30. Ibid., 15: 10.

31 St. Thomas, In Epist.II ad Cor., 12:7.

32. Cf. II Cor. 4:7.

33. Cf. St. Thomas, Comm. in Ep. ad Hebr. VI,. lect. I: "Quantum ad aestimationem, semper debet homo esse sicut incedens et tendens ad majora, Phil. 3:12. Non quod jam coeperim aut quod jam perfectus sim. . . . Et semper debet niti homo transire ad statum perfectum, Phil. 3: 13: Quae retro runt obliviscens, ad ea quae priora sum me extendens."

34. Luke I: 46-51.

35. Luke 14: 11.

36. Luke 18: 14.

37. Cf. II Cor. 5:4.

38. I Cor. 15:53.

39. Matt. 11:29.

+ + + + +

1. John 3: 16.

2. We are not concerned here with the motive of the Incarnation, but with that of the immense sufferings of the redemptive Passion, since the smallest act of love of the Savior was sufficient to redeem us.

3. Isa. 41:8; 48: 11.

4. I John 1:14.

5. The author certainly does not mean that by His dolorous passion Christ merited the Incarnation; the principle of merit cannot be merited. However, he does mean, as he says farther on, that Christ thus merited the exaltation of His name, as St. Thomas Aquinas affirms with all tradition.

6. What He had by right of birth, He had also by right of conquest.

7. Luke 24: 25 f.

8. John 7: 38.

9. Ibid., 39.

10. Luke 18: 14.

11. Phil. 2:8-11.

12. St. Thomas says the same things (IIIa, q.46, a. I): "Christ. . . merited the glory of being exalted, through the lowliness of His passion." See also, ibid., a. 3: By His dolorous passion Jesus also manifests to us the excess of His love, even to the folly of the cross. As a result, men are much more enlightened on the gravity of sin and the value of grace, the seed of etemal life, participation in the intimate life of God.

13. Luke 18: 14.