1. The humble man is he who acknowledges his own nothingness and the nothingness of all earthly things, and comports himself in accordance with this conviction.
The heathen centurion at Capharnaum displayed great humility when he said to Our Lord: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed” (Matt. viii. 8). Notwithstanding his position, his wealth, his good works he had built the Jews a synagogue he thought nothing of himself. Humility is twofold; it consists of humility of the understanding, by which a man becomes conscious of his own abjection, and humility of the will, which causes him to manifest his consciousness in his conduct; he humbles himself, and takes the lowest place. That would be false humility which was merely external, not heartfelt. St. Bonaventure defines humility as voluntary self-abasement resulting from the knowledge of our own frailty.
We learn humility by the consideration of the infinite majesty of God and the transitory nature of earthly things.
The poor man feels his poverty most keenly when he compares himself with his opulent neighbor. St. Augustine prayed for the knowledge of God, that he might thereby know himself. The majesty of God is most apparent in creation. In the firmament of heaven are many million orbs far surpassing in magnitude our earth, which is but a speck of dust in the universe. How insignificant then is each individual man! Must not the pride of every one be humbled at the sight of the endless myriads of worlds that people space, and which no man can count? And what is one single man among the hundreds of millions that inhabit the earth, not to speak of those that have lived in the past, and will live in the future. All earthly things pass away like a shadow and have no value before God. “The grave,” says St. John Chrysostom, “is the school wherein we learn humility.” Let no man pride himself on his riches; he may lose them in a single night; he must lose them at his death. Let no man pride himself on his physical beauty, for it may be disfigured by disease, and after death will be the prey of worms. Let no man pride himself upon his knowledge; how soon he forgets what he has learned, and how immeasurable is the amount of what he does not know! A philosopher of antiquity used to say: “All I know is that I know nothing.” “If it seem to thee that thou knowest many things and understandest them well enough, know at the same time that there are many more things of which thou art ignorant” (Imitation, Book 1, ch. 2). Besides all our knowledge is ignorance compared with the infinite wisdom of God. Let no man pride himself upon earthly honor, for to-day the people cry “Hosanna,” and to-morrow “Crucify him.” How shortlived is the power and prestige of earthly potentates (witness Napoleon). Let no man pride himself even upon the graces he has received from God, for they may be withdrawn at any moment, and they increase his responsibility. Neither let him pride himself upon his good works, for God has no need of his goods (Ps. xv. 2). After we have done all, we are unprofitable servants (Luke xvii. 10). Whatever therefore a man may possess, he in reality possesses nothing or next to nothing. The humble man is no hypocrite; he only forms a just estimate of things.
The humble man conducts himself in the following manner: He delights in abasement, he does not attach his heart to transitory good things, he trusts wholly in God, and does not fear man.
The humble man delights in abasement; he never unnecessarily attracts attention to himself, i.e., he avoids ostentation and singularity in his demeanor and deportment, in his conversation, his gestures, at prayer, in dress, at table. He never seeks to make his humility conspicuous by downcast eyes, a slouching gait, a dejected mien; he is humble of heart, like Our Lord; he only allows his humility to be observed when occasion requires, and then only simply and unaffectedly. He is not always calling himself the chief of sinners; uncalled for self -blame generally betokens pride. Furthermore he hides his talents, for he knows that what man reveals God conceals, and what man disclaims, God proclaims. St. Anthony of Padua concealed his great erudition until God made it known. “The humble man does not think himself better than others; he esteems others above himself “ (Phil. ii. 3). He does not publish the failings of others, he does not choose the highest place (Luke xiv. 10); on the contrary, he rejoices in being slighted, despised, humiliated, knowing that for this God will exalt him (Luke xiv. 10). Thus it was with the publican in the Temple (Luke xviii. 13); the humble man aspires only after eternal treasures, and does not attach his heart to what is transitory. Earthly good things, riches, dignities, pleasures, the praise of men, do not allure him; he is aware that he is none the better for them in God’s sight, and they may prove his ruin. Earthly sufferings, contempt, reproaches, ridicule, persecution, do not dishearten him; he glories in them, because they enable him to earn heaven. He despises contempt, because it cannot harm him. Thus St. Paul writes: “To me it is a very small thing to be judged by you, or by man’s day” (1 Cor. iv. 3). The humble man trusts in God alone. Conscious of his own weakness he does not confide in his own strength, but only in the aid of divine grace; as Joseph did when required to interpret Pharao’s dream (Gen. xli. 16). He does not take to himself the credit even of his virtues and good works, but ascribes all to God, knowing that it is God Who worketh in Him; as the sun calls vegetable life into being upon the earth. Yet he is ready to acknowledge the favors God confers on him, saying with the blessed Mother of God: “He that is mighty hath done great things to me” (Luke i. 49). The recognition of these favors makes him grateful to God and increases his love of God. “No one,” says St. Teresa, “will do great things for God, who does not know that God has done great things for him.” The humble man does not fear men, because, far from being cast down by any humiliation he may meet with at their hands he rejoices in it. Besides he knows that he is in God’s safekeeping, and to them that love God all things work together for good (Rom. viii. 28). Discouragement and pusillanimity are not characteristics of true humility.
2. Christ gave us in Himself the grandest example of humility, for He, being- the Son of God, took the form of a servant, chose to live in great lowliness, was most condescending in His intercourse with men, and finally, voluntarily endured the ignominious death of the cross.
Christ emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, i.e., human nature (Phil. ii. 7). In the Sacrament of the Altar He even takes the form of bread. And at the baptism of Our Lord the Holy Spirit assumed the shape of an animal, the dove. The prophets, in predict ing the coming of Christ spoke of Him under the designation of the Lamb of God. Thus we see how almighty God humbles Himself. Our Lord lived in great lowliness; He chose for His birthplace not a royal palace but a stable; for His Mother, not a queen but a poor maiden; for His foster-father a humble carpenter; for His dwelling-place an obscure town; for His apostles, not the philosophers and sages of the world, but simple and unlearned fishermen. In His intercourse with men Our Lord was most condescending; He encouraged children to approach Him, He even conversed with sinners (e.g., the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalen, the woman taken in adultery); at the Last Supper He washed His disciples feet, and made not the slightest objection to go to the house of the centurion, when the latter entreated Him to cure his servant (Matt. viii. 7). Crucifixion was at that time the most ignominious death by which a man could die, yet Christ chose that very death for Himself; showing by His own actions that humility is the royal road to God.
In His teaching also Our Lord exhorts us constantly to the practice of humility. “He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. xxiii. 11), and again: “When you shall have done all these things that are commanded you say: We are unprofitable servants” (Luke xvii. 10).
Moreover He commends humility in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke xviii. 13). On one occasion he took a child and said: “Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. xviii. 4). He presents Himself to us as a pattern of this virtue: “Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of Heart, and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matt. xi. 29). Finally, He promises that the humble shall be exalted (Luke xiv. 11), and shall enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. v. 3).
3. Humility leads to great sanctity, to exaltation, and to everlasting felicity.
Furthermore through it we obtain enlightenment of the understanding, true peace of mind, forgiveness of sin, a speedy answer to prayer, and are enabled to overcome temptation with out difficulty.
God is with the humble. If any one has a lowly opinion of himself, and considers himself inferior to others, it is an unfailing proof that the Holy Spirit dwells within him. In the first place the humble man attains a high degree of perfection. The more humble he is the more perfect he is, and vice versa. Well-filled ears of corn bend downwards, the thin ears hold their heads aloft. Empty vessels make the most sound. “He who thinks much of himself,” says St. Teresa, “thinks much of little; he who thinks little of himself, thinks little of much.” Humility is the surest test of sanctity. St. Philip Neri was once sent by the Holy Father to a convent in the vicinity of Rome one of whose inmates enjoyed a reputation for sanctity, in order to test the truth of that report. As soon as he entered the parlor, he requested the nun in question to clean his boots, which were covered with mud. She replied in no very courteous manner that she was unaccustomed to such work. St. Philip returned to the Pope and said: “She is no saint and works no miracles, for she lacks what is most essential, humility.” Humility leads to exaltation. Our Lord says: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke xiv. 11). No man can ascend who has not first descended. “Be humbled in the sight of God and He will exalt you” (Jas. iv. 10). The blessed Mother of God attributed all the graces she received from God to her humility: “He hath regarded the humility of His handmaiden; for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke i. 48). Honor pursues him who flies from her, humility leads to everlasting felicity. Our Lord says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. v. 3). The gate of heaven is narrow, and only little ones, i.e., the humble, can pass through. Humility is also a means of obtaining enlightenment of the mind through the Holy Spirit. The humble alone can enter into the spirit of Our Lord’s teaching. He Himself says: “I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little ones” (Matt. xi. 25). St. Peter says: “God resisteth the proud, but to the humble He giveth graces” (1 Pet. v. 5). The communications of the Most High are with the simple (Prov. iii. 32), that is, He enlightens his mind. Hence it is that the poor and unlearned sometimes have a truer knowledge of the things of God than the learned. The shepherds were informed of Christ’s birth, the Scribes and Pharisees were not. He must stoop who desires to -draw water out of the fountains of God’s grace. St. Teresa says that one day in which we humble ourselves before God is more fruitful in graces than many days spent in prayer. The humble man attains true peace of mind. Our Lord says: “Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of Heart, and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matt. xi. 29). The humble are not lifted up by prosperity nor cast down by adversity. The humble man obtains forgiveness of sins. The publican who smote upon his breast and said: “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” went down to his house justified (Luke xviii. 13). The humble man obtains a speedy answer to prayer. “The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds” (Ecclus. xxxv. 21). The humble man overcomes temptation without difficulty. Humility is the most powerful weapon wherewith to vanquish the devil. It is the virtue he most fears, for it is the only one which he is unable to imitate.
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2. THE OPPOSITE OF HUMILITY: PRIDE
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