VII. HUMILITY OF THE HEART OR WILL
Humility of the intellect consists, as we have seen, in esteeming oneself worthy of reproach and scorn; while humility of the will is a desire to be despised by others and taking pleasure in contempt. This is the more meritorious because an act of the will is more pleasing to God than an act of the intellect.
Speaking of humility of the will, St. Bernard says: “The first degree is, not to wish for power; the second, to wish to be in a state of subjection to authority; the third is, in subjection to bear injuries with equanimity.” Such is the humility of the will or heart which Jesus Christ wished to teach us by His own example. Learn of me, said the Redeemer, because I am meek and humble of heart (Matt. xi. 29). Many have humility on their tongue, but not in their heart. “They, indeed,” says St. Gregory, “confess with their lips that they are most wicked and most deserving of all sorts of chastisement; but they believe not what they say. For, when rebuked, they give way to disquietude, and deny that they are guilty of the fault for which they are corrected.” To this class belonged a certain monk, who, as Cassian relates, used to say that he was a great sinner, and unworthy to breathe the breath of life. But when the Abbot Serapion corrected him for violating the Rule by idle visits to the cells of the other monks, he became greatly troubled. Seeing him disturbed, the abbot said: “Why, my son, are you so much disquieted? Hitherto you have called yourself a great sinner, and now you cannot bear from me a charitable admonition.” Some there are who confess that their sins merit a thousand hells, and yet they cannot bear a word of admonition. Such people possess, indeed, humility in words, but know not the humility recommended by Jesus Christ, which is the humility of the heart.
There is, says the Holy Ghost, one that humbleth himself wickedly, and his interior is full of deceit (Ecclus. xix. 23). There are some who humble themselves, not from desire of being rebuked and despised, but through a motive of being esteemed humble and of being praised for their humility. But, according to St. Bernard, to seek praise for voluntary humiliations is not humility, but the destruction of humility, for it changes humility itself into an object of pride. Speculative humility, says St. Vincent de Paul, presents a very beautiful aspect; but practical humility, because it is nothing else than the love of abjection and contempt, is an object of horror to flesh and blood. Hence St. John Climacus observes that the proof of true humility consists, not in confessing our sinfulness, but in rejoicing in the contempt due to sinners. “Self-disparagement,” says the Saint, “is good, but to confirm the dispraise which others cast upon us, and not to resent it, but to delight in it, is still better.” “When,” says St. Gregory, “the humble man calls himself a sinner, he will not contradict others who say the same of him.” No; when reproved for his faults he reasserts his own sinfulness. In a word, as St. Bernard says, “the truly humble man wishes, indeed, to be held in little estimation, but desires not to be praised for his humility.” Instead of seeking to be esteemed for his humility he wishes to be regarded as a man deserving of contempt and full of imperfections; and because he deems himself worthy only of abjection, he delights in the humiliations which are heaped upon him. Hence, as St. Bernard teaches, “he converts humiliation into humility “; so that all the humiliations he receives only serve to render him more humble. St. Joseph Calasanctius used to say that “he who loves God seeks not to be reputed a saint, but to attain sanctity.”
If you wish, then, to acquire humility of heart, you must, in the first place, shun all self-praise. Let another praise thee, says the Wise Man, and not thy own mouth (Prov. xxvii. 2). Self-praise never fails to earn the contempt, but seldom wins the respect of others. Remember that if you indulge in empty boasting, others will say and think of you what you yourself would say and think of a boaster. In speaking of your own concerns, seek always to humble and never to exalt yourself. Self-dispraise can do you no injury; but the smallest portion of unmerited self-commendation may be productive of great evil. “To extol yourself slightly above your deserts is,” says St. Bernard, “a great evil.” He who in passing through a door bends his head, is free from all danger of injury; but he who carries it too high may get a severe blow. Be careful, then, to speak of yourself humbly rather than boastingly, and to disclose your faults rather than your virtues. The best rule is, never to speak well or ill of yourself, but to regard yourself as unworthy to be even named in conversation. It frequently happens that in saying what tends to our own confusion we indulge a secret and refined pride. For the confusion arising from the voluntary manifestation of our defects excites within us a desire of obtaining the praise or reputation of being humble. This rule is not to be observed in the tribunal of penance: on the contrary, it will be always useful to make known to the Confessor your defects, your evil inclinations; and, generally speaking, even the evil thoughts that pass through your mind. It is also very profitable to manifest, on some occasions, certain circumstances that redound to your shame. On such occasions be careful not to abstain from humbling your own pride.
Should it ever happen that you are compelled to listen to your own praise, endeavour to humble yourself, at least interiorly, by casting an eye at the reasons for self-contempt that have been already detailed. To the proud, says St. Gregory, praise, however undeserved, is delicious; but to the humble, even well-merited commendation is a source of grief and of affliction. And being exalted, says the Royal Prophet, I have been humbled and troubled (Ps. lxxxvii. 16). Like holy David, the humble man, says St. Gregory, is troubled at hearing his own praises. He sees that he has no claim to the virtues or to the good qualities ascribed to him; and he fears that by taking self-complacency in his good works he may lose whatever merit he has acquired before God, and that the Judge may say to him: Thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime (Luke xvi. 25). Whoever takes pleasure in listening to his own praise has already received his reward: he has no claim to any other remuneration. As gold says the Wise Man, is tried in the furnace, so a man is tried by the mouth of him that praiseth (Prov. xxvii. 21). Yes, a man’s spirit is tried by praise: when the commendation of his virtues excites sentiments, not of pleasure nor of pride, but of shame and confusion, then, indeed, his humility appears. St. Francis Borgia and St. Aloysius were greatly afflicted whenever they heard themselves extolled. When you are praised or treated with respect, humble your soul and tremble lest the honour you receive should be to you an occasion of sin and of perdition. Consider that the esteem of men may prove your greatest misfortune; by fomenting pride it may contaminate your heart, and thus be the cause of your damnation.
Keep always before your eyes the great saying of St. Francis of Assisi: What I am before God, that I am, and no more. Are you so foolish as to think that the esteem of men will render you more pleasing in the sight of God? When you are gratified and elated by the praises bestowed upon you, and are by them induced to think yourself better than others, you may be assured that, while men extol your virtues, God will cut you off. Be persuaded, then, that the praises of others will never make you more holy in the sight of God. St. Augustine says that as the reproach or slander of an enemy cannot deprive a man of the merit of his virtues, so the applause of a friend or admirer will not make him better than he really is. “A bad conscience,” says the Saint, “is not healed by the praise of a flatterer, nor a good one wounded by the contumely of the reviler.” Whenever, then, you hear your own praises, say in your heart, with St. Augustine: “I know myself better than they do; and God knows me better than I do myself.” They, indeed, praise me, but I who see the state of my own soul better than they do, know that these praises are unmerited; God knows it still better than I do; He sees that I deserve neither honour nor respect, but all the contempt of earth and hell.