VIII. HUMILITY OF THE HEART OR WILL
As you ought carefully to abstain from all complacency in the praises that you receive from others, so you must abstain with still greater caution from seeking any office of rank or dignity. “You must,” as St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi says, “avoid with all possible care every exercise that is apt to attract attention, for it is in such exercises that pride delights.”
“All worldly honours,” says St. Hilary, “are the affairs of the devil.” Worldly honours are the means by which Satan gains many souls for hell. And, if the ambition for honours occasions great ruin in a worldling, it is productive of far greater havoc in one who is consecrated to God. Addressing her own Community, St. Teresa said: “Should a Judas be ever found among you, expel her at once, as a source of infection; and deprive for ever of all hope of success in her projects the nun who attempts to seek superiority over others. I would rather see this monastery burnt to the ground than ever see ambition enter into it.” Similar were the sentiments of St. Jane Frances de Chantal. “I would,” says the Saint, “sooner see my monastery buried in the sea, than ambition or the desire of office enter it.”
Listen to the wise remarks of Peter de Blois on this subject. In one of his letters he describes the pestiferous effects of ambition, and its frightful ravages in the souls of Christians. Ambition, he says, though full of uncharitableness, puts on the garb of charity. Charity suffers all things for the attainment of eternal goods: ambition, too, endures every hardship, but only for the acquisition of the miserable honours of this world. Charity is kind, but particularly to the poor and the abject; ambition, too, abounds in benevolence, but only to the rich and powerful, who can gratify its cravings. Charity bears all things to please God; ambition submits to every wrong, but only through the vain motive of obtaining honours or office. O God! to what annoyance, inconvenience, fatigues, fears, expenses, and even reproaches and insults, must the ambitious submit, for the attainment of the dignity to which they aspire! Finally, charity believes and hopes for all that regards the glory of eternity; but ambition believes and hopes only for what regards the empty honours of this life.
But, in the end, what is the fruit of all the labours of the ambitious? They only attain dignity which contents not the heart, and which renders them, in the eyes of the others, objects of contempt rather than of respect. “By the sole desire of it,” says St. Teresa, “your glory is lost: the greater the dignity obtained, the more disgraceful it is to the person who has procured it. For the more he has laboured for its attainment, the more he has shown himself unworthy of it.” St. Jane Frances de Chantal said that “they who esteem themselves most deserving of office are the most unworthy of it: because they want humility, which is the best disposition for the fulfilment of an office.” God grant that the dignity which the ambitious procure may not be the cause of their eternal ruin. Father Vincent Carafa, of the Society of Jesus, having once visited a dying friend, to whom an office of great emolument, but at the same time of great danger, had been given, was requested by the sick man to obtain from God the restoration of his health. No, my friend, replied the Father, I shall not abuse my affection for you: desirous of your salvation, God calls you to another life while you are in a state of grace. I know not whether, if restored to health, you would save your soul in the office which has been offered to you. The sick man peacefully accepted death, and expired with sentiments of joy and resignation. “It is scarcely possible,” says St. Bonaventure, “that he who delights in honours should not be in great danger.”
St. Francis Xavier used to say that to desire respect and honour or to take complacency in them, is unworthy of a Christian, who should have always before his eyes the ignominies of Jesus Christ. How much more unsuited must such foolish ambition be to those who are consecrated to Christ? St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi used to say that “the honour of such persons consists in being the lowest of all, and in having a horror of being preferred to any.” “Let your ambition be to be the most humble and the most dear to Jesus Christ,” says St. Thomas of Villanova. And St. Bonaventure says that if you desire to be a saint, you must endeavour to lead a life of obscurity and contempt. “Love,” says the Saint, “to be unknown and despised,” so that no attention whatever may be shown to you.
Envy not those who surpass you in talent and learning, or who are more highly esteemed than you are. Envy those only who are your superiors in charity and humility. Humiliation is preferable to all the applause and honour the world can bestow. The most useful of all sciences is that which teaches you to humble and despise yourself, and to delight in being treated with contempt. God has not given you great abilities, because they might lead you to destruction. Be content, then, with the little talent that you have received: let the want of talent be to you an occasion of practising humility, which is the safest, and indeed the only way to save your soul and to become a saint. If others surpass you in ability, take care to outstrip all in the practice of humility. But in humility, says St. Paul, let each esteem others better than themselves (Phil. ii. 3). They who are invested with authority over others are exposed to great danger of being puffed up with pride, of losing the Divine light, and of thus becoming like senseless beasts that seek only the miserable goods of the earth, and never think of the glory of eternity. Man, says the Psalmist, when he was in honour did not understand: he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them (Ps. xlviii. 13).