66. The most familiar meditation which the seraphic St. Francis was in the habit of making was this, first he elevated his thoughts to God and then turned them towards himself: “My God,” he would exclaim, “Who art Thou? and who am I?” And raising his thoughts first to the greatness and infinite goodness of God he would then descend to consider his own misery and vileness. And thus ascending and descending this scale of thought from the greatness of God down to his own nothingness the seraphic Saint would pass whole nights in meditation, practising in this exercise a real, true, sublime and profound humility, like the Angels seen by Jacob in his sleep on that ladder of mystical perfection “ascending and descending by it.” [Gen. xxviii, 12]
This should be our model that we may not err in the exercise of humility. To fix our thoughts solely on our own wretchedness might cause us to fall into self-distrust and despair, and in the same way to fix our thoughts solely on the contemplation of the Divine goodness might cause us to be presumptuous and rash. True humility lies between the two: “Humility,” says St. Thomas, “checks presumption and strengthens the soul against despair.” [2a 2æ<>, qu. clxi, art. 1 ad 3]
Distrust yourself and confide in God, and thus distrusting and thus confiding, between fear and hope, you shall work out your salvation in the spirit of the Gospel.
We should first reflect upon the infinite mercy of God, so as to excite our hope, as King David did: “Thy mercy is before my eyes,” and we should then reflect on His justice, so as to keep ourselves in the fear thereof: “O Lord, I will be mindful of Thy justice alone.” [Ps. lxx, 16] And also in turning our thoughts to ourselves we should first reflect upon man as being the work of God created to His image and likeness, so as to give God the glory; then we should reflect upon the sinner in man which is our work and which ought to make us deeply dejected. “Man and sin,” say St. Augustine, “are as it were two distinct things. What savours of man God made, what savours of the sinner man made himself. Destroy what man has made that God may save what He has made.” [Tract xii, in 10]
67. Self-knowledge is a great help for acquiring humility; but in the midst of the many passions, faults and vices of which we are aware, to recognize our own pride is the most useful of all. For this vice is the most shameful of all, and even in our confessions it is more difficult for us to say truthfully: “I accuse myself of being proud and of not trying seriously to correct this fault” than to accuse ourselves of many other sins. This knowledge of our pride is most humiliating; for where certain other vices may be pitied and excused for some reason or other, pride can never be pitied or excused, being a sin which is diabolical and odious not only to God but to men—–as the inspired word says: “Pride is hateful before God and men.” [Ecclus. x, 7]
Let us therefore examine ourselves daily on this point; let us accuse ourselves of it in our confessions; and acknowledging our pride in this manner will be an excellent incentive to become humble. Let us pray to Jesus Christ that He may do for us as He did for the blind man whom He healed, and ask Him to put the mud of pride upon our eyes so that we may be made to see. Let us say to God: “Thou art my God, that God Who ‘raiseth up the needy from the earth and lifteth up the poor out of the dunghill,’ [Ps. cxii, 7] grant that this pride which is my great sin may through Thee serve as an instrument by which I may attain to a virtuous humility!”
68. Let us consider the things of this world in which we are apt to take a vain delight. Onc may pride himself on his robust health and bodily strength, another on the science, knowledge, eloquence andother gifts that he has acquired through study and art. Another prides himself upon his wealth and possessions; another upon his nobility and rank; another upon his moral virtues, or other virtues which bring him spiritual grace and perfection : but must not all these gifts be regarded as so many benefits proceeding from God, for which we must render an account if we do not use them to resist temptation and conform to the ordination of God? We are debtors to God for every benefit that we receive, and are bound to employ these gifts and to trade with them for the glory of God like merchants to whom capital is entrusted. When we consider how many benefits, both of body and soul, we have received from Him, we are compelled to admit that there are so many debts which we have contracted towards Him, and why should we glory in our debts?
No prudent merchant, if he has large debts, would go and proclaim the fact in the marketplace and thereby lose his credit; and how can we expect to gain credit by boasting of the many debts we owe to God? Debts so heavy that we run the risk of becoming bankrupt on that day when our Lord and Master will say: “Pay what thou owest.” [Matt. viii, 28]
From the benefits we receive of God we should learn lessons of humility rather than of pride, following the teaching of St. Gregory: “The more strict the account that a man sees he must give of his duties, the more humble should he be in the performance of them,”. [Hom. ix in Evang.] Our desire to boast of the favours we have received of God only demonstrates our ingratitude, and we have more cause to humble ourselves for being ungrateful than to glory in the benefits thus bestowed upon us.
69. The true reason for which God bestows so many graces upon the humble is this, that the humble are faithful to these graces and make good use of them. They receive them from God, and use them in a manner pleasing to God, giving all the glory to Him without reserving any for themselves. This is like the faithful steward who appropriates nothing that belongs to his master; and thus deserves that praise and reward given to the fai thful servant mentioned in the Gospel: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,because thou hast been faithful over a few things I will place thee over many things.” [Matt. xxv, 21]
O my soul, how dost thou stand in regard to this faithfulness towards God? Art thou not like those servants to whom their master daily entrusts money now to buy one thing, now another, and who each time keep back a small coin for themselves, until little by little they become unfaithful servants and great thieves? In like manner, our pride renders us unfaithful servants when we attribute to ourselves that praise which is due only to a gift that is entrusted to us by God and which ought to be ascribed unreservedly to Him.
O Lord, Thou seest all my thefts and I am overwhelmed with astonishment that Thou dost still trust me! Considering my unfaithfulness I am not worthy of the smallest grace, but make me humble and I shall also be faithful.
It is certainly true that he who is humble is also faithful to God; because the humble man is also just in giving to all their due, and above all in rendering to God the things that are God’s, that is, in giving Him the glory for all the good that he is, all the good that he has and for all the good that he does; as the Venerable Bede says: “Whatever good we see in ourselves let us ascribe it to God and not to ourselves.” [ Apud D. Th. in Cat. to 5]