74. A doubt may arise in our mind that since to obtain the grace of humility we must ask it of God, and ask it with humility if we wish God to hear our prayer, how can we possibly ask with humility since it is precisely that humility which we have not and for which we are asking? Do not let us lose ourselves in such speculations, which are useless in practice, since “Simplicity of heart is what the Lord desires of us.”[Wisd. i, 1]
There are certain efficacious virtues that God has infused into our souls in holy Baptism, independently of our own dispositions, “principally by infusion in Baptism,” says St. Thomas. Such, for example, is faith, and such also is that humility which is necessary for us so that we may believe and pray as we ought. Let us therefore exercise in our prayers this infused humility, and in making good use of it we shall in time acquire that other evangelical virtue which is necessary to our salvation and which can only be obtained by our own co-operation.
Prayer, says St. Augustine, is essentially the resource of him who knows that he is both poor and needy: “Prayer is only for the needy.” [“Oratio non est nisi indigentium” (Enarr. in Ps. xxvi] Let us acknowledge and confess our poverty and indigence before God, and by this confession we shall exercise humility. The really poor do not need to be taught how to ask alms humbly. Necessity is their master, and if man can humble himself before man, why should he not also humble himself before God?
If we wish to discern what belongs to God and that which is our own, it is sufficient for us to reflect that by rendering to God all that is His, nothing is left to ourselves but nothingness. So that we can truly say with the prophet: “I am brought to nothing.” [Ps. lxxii, 21] This is a true saying, that all that is within us that is more than nothingness belongs to God, and He can take away what is His when He chooses without doing us any wrong.
Therefore in what can we pride ourselves, since God can take anything away from us the moment that we begin to glory in it?
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For he who glories in his wealth may soon become poor; he who glories in his health may suddenly become infirm; he who glories in his knowledge may suddenly become insane; he who glories in his holiness may suddenly fall into some great sin. What vanity, what folly, then, to glory in that which is not our own, nor even in our power to keep! “What hast thou that thou hast not received?” [1 Cor. iv, 7]
This reflection alone should suffice to make us humble, and it may be said that all true humility depends upon our persevering seriously in this thought. Oh, my soul, thou shalt be humbled when, as God says by the prophet, He will “separate the precious from the vile.” [Jer. xv, 19] Thus the essence of humility consists in knowing how to discern rightly that which is mine, and that which belongs to God. All the good I do comes from God, and nothing belongs to me but my own nothingness. What was I in the abyss of eternity? A mere nothing. And what did I do of myself to emerge from that nothingness? Nothing. If God had not created me, where should I be? In nothingness. If God did not uphold me at every turn, whither should I return? Into nothingness. Therefore it is clear that I possess nothing of myself but nothingness. Even in my moral being I possess nothing but my own wickedness. When I do evil it is entirely my own work, when I do good it belongs to God alone. Evil is a work of my own wickedness; good is a work of God’s mercy. In this way we separate the precious from the vile; this is the art of all arts, the science of sciences, and the wisdom of the Saints.
76. Let us imagine a man who possesses many beasts of burden which he has bought for the purpose of carrying such loads as he requires. The beasts are loaded, one with gold, one with books of philosophy, mathematics, theology and law, another with weapons, another with sacred vessels and vestments belonging to the Church, and another with reliquaries in which are precious relics of the Saints, and so on.
Now, if these animals could discourse among themselves, do you think that the one laden with gold would boast of his riches, and the one laden with books of his knowledge, and that in the same way the others would boast of bravery or of holiness according to the nature of their loads? Would not such pretensions be vain and ridiculous? Most certainly; for the rich and precious burdens borne by these animals belong to the master and not to the beast. For the master might have laden with dung the one he loaded with gold or other precious things, and being their owner he could unload each animal whenever he pleased, so that each one would appear before him as he is, namely, a vile beast of burden.
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Or, with St. Augustine, let us picture to ourselves the ass on which Jesus Christ sat when He was met by the multitude with their branches of palms, acclaiming Him with cries of: “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna!” [Matt. xxi, 9] Who would be so foolish as to imagine that these honours were given to the beast? These praises were not given to the ass, but to Christ who was seated on the ass. “Was that ass to be praised? That ass was carrying some one, but He who was being carried was the one who was being praised.” ” [Enarr. in Ps. xxxiii].
Let us apply the simile to ourselves, saying, with David: “I am become as a beast before Thee.” [Ps. lxxii, 22] and whatever may be the object of our pride let us use this simile to exercise ourselves in humility.
77. We may say with St. Thomas, [12, qu. iv, art. 2] that this craving of ours to be esteemed, respected and honoured is an effect of Original Sin, like concupiscence which remains to us even after our Baptism; but God has ordained that these appetites and desires should remain in us in order that we might have occasion of mortifying ourselves and that by such means we might gain the kingdom of Heaven.
We need not be astonished nor sad when we feel these instincts within us. They belong to the wickedness of our corrupt nature and are remnants of the temptation of our first parents by the serpent, when he said to them: “And you shall be as gods.” [ Gen. iii, 5] Therefore I repeat that these desires which arise from the weakness and depravity of our human nature must be borne with patience. If these desires gain the mastery over us, it is because we have encouraged and given way to them; and a bad habit which we have formed ourselves can only be cured by ourselves, and therefore the mortification of the same also lies with us. This mortification of the senses, inspired by humility, is taught by Christ in the self-denial which He imposed upon us when He said: “If any man will follow Me) let him deny himself.” [Matt. xvi, 24] And therefore I must draw this conclusion, that if I will not mortify myself with humility—–that is to say, crush my self-love and craving for esteem—–I shall be excluded as a follower of Jesus Christ, and by such an exclusion I shall also forfeit His grace and be eternally exiled from participating in His glory.
But in order to practice it, it is necessary for me to do violence to myself, as it is written: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence) and the violent bear it away.” [Matt. xi, 12] Who can obtain salvation) except by doing violence to himself?