85. Humility of heart, St. Thomas teaches, has no limit, because before God we can always abase ourselves more and more even unto utter nothingness, and we can do the same to our fellow men. but in the exercise of these exterior acts of humility it is necessary to be directed with discretion so as not to fall into an extravagance that might seem excessive. “Humility,” says St. Thomas, “lies chiefly in the soul, and therefore a man may submit himself to another as regards his interior acts, and this is what St. Augustine means when he says: “Before God a prelate is placed under your feet but in exterior acts of humility it is necessary to observe due restraint.” [2a 2æ, qu. clxi, art. 3 ad 3]
Profound humility should exist in every state of life, but exterior acts of humility are not expedient to all. For this reason Holy Writ says: “Beware that thou be not deceived into folly and be humbled.” [Ecclus xiii, 10]
We can learn of the pious Esther how to practice humility of heart in the midst of pomp and honours: “Thou knowest my necessity,” she cried to God, “that 1 abominate the sign of my pride.” [Esther xiv, 16] I attire myself in this rich apparel and with these jewels because my position demands it; but Thou, Lord, seest my heart that through Thy grace I am not attached to these things nor to this apparel, and that I only wear them of necessity. Here indeed is a great example of that true inward humility which can be practiced and felt amid external grandeur. But now we. come to the point. This humility of heart must really exist before God, whose eyes behold the most hidden motions of the heart; and if it does not exist what excuse can we allege before the tribunal of God to justify ourselves for not having had it? and the more easily we could have acquired it now, the more inexcusable will it be for us on that day.
86. The malice of pride lies in reality in the practical contempt which we show for God’s will by disobeying it. Thus it is, says St. Augustine, there is pride in every sin committed, “by which we despise the commandments of God.” [Lib. de. Salut. docum. c. xix] And St. Bernard explains it in this way that God commands us to do His will: “God wishes His will to be done”; and the sinner in his pride prefers his own will to the will of God: “And the proud man wishes his own will to be done.”
And it is this pride that so greatly augments the grievousness of sin; and how great our sin must be when, knowing in our minds that God deserves to be obeyed by us, we oppose our will to the will of God, whom we know to be worthy of all obedience. What wickedness there is in saying to God, “I will not serve,” [Jer. ii, 20] when we know that all things serve Him.” [Ps. cxviii, 91] To give an example of this, let us imagine a person endowed with the noblest qualities possible, such as health, beauty, riches and nobility, and with every natural gift and grace of body and soul. Now, little by little, let us take away from that person all those gifts which come from God. Health and beauty are gifts from God; riches and rank, learning and knowledge, and every other virtue are all from God; body and soul belong to God. And this being so, what remains to this person of his own? Nothing; because all that is more than nothing belongs to God.
But when this person says of himself: “I have riches, I have health, and I have knowledge,” etc., what is meant by this “I”? Nothingness; and yet this “I,” this nothingness, that derives all it possesses from God, dares to disregard this same God by disobeying His sovereign commandments, saying to Him, if not in words most certainly in deeds, which is far worse, “I will not serve”; no, I will not obey. Ah, pride, pride! But, O my soul, “Why doth thy spirit swell against God ?” [Tob. xv, 13] Am I not right in preaching and recommending this humility to thee? Each time thou sinnest thou art like the proud, Pharao, who, when he was told to obey the commandments of God, said: “Who is this God? I know Him not.” [Exod. v, 2]
87. The mistake lies in our having too high an opinion of what the world calls honour, esteem and fame. For however much the world may praise or honour me, it cannot increase my merit or my virtue one jot; and also if the world vituperates me, it cannot take from me anything that I have or that I am in myself. I shall know vanity from truth by the light of that blessed candle which I shall hold in my hand at the hour of my death. What will it profit me then to have been esteemed and honoured by the whole world, if my conscience convinces me of sin before God? Ah, what folly it would be for a nobleman, possessing talents which would endear him to his king and make him a favourite at court, if he were to seek rather to be adulated by his servants and menials, and to find pleasure in such miserable adulation. But it is a far greater folly for a Christian, who might gain the praise and honour of God and of all the angels and saints in heaven, to seek rather to be praised and honoured by men and to glory in it. By humility I can please God, the Angels and the Saints; therefore is it not a despicable pride that makes me desire the esteem, praise and approbation of men, when we are told that “He is approved whom God commendeth?” [2 Cor. x, 18]
The thought of death is profitable in order to acquire humility; and humility helps us greatly to obtain a holy death. St. Catherine of Siena, shortly before her death, was tempted to thoughts of pride and vainglory on account of her own holiness; but to this temptation she answered: “I render thanks to God that in all my life I have never felt any vainglory.” Oh, how beautiful to be able to exclaim on one’s death-bed: I have never known vainglory.