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Step 25

ON HUMILITY.

1. He who should wish to express by words the interior sentiments of divine love in all its fervour, or humility in all the depth of its abasement, or chastity in all its pure and angelic dignity, or heavenly illumination in all its supernatural brightness, or the fear of God with all its lively emotions, or the bashful confidence of the heart, with all its tenderness and immutability of purpose towards the object of its hope, he, I repeat, who should wish, by the mere elucidation of his subject, to enlighten the ignorance of those who have never possessed any of these virtues, nor relished the sweetness of their ineffable graces, would resemble the person who attempted, by the assistance of language, to convey an idea of the sweetness of honey to the minds of those who had never tasted it. But as this would be vain, so would it be equally unprofitable to speak of humility, and the other virtues, in the manner we have mentioned. The speaker would either be ignorant of what he said, or if he spoke from knowledge, would be liable to be deceived by the illusions of vanity.

2. The virtue of which I intend to treat in this degree or step of our holy ladder, is a treasure contained in clay vessels, that is, in our frail bodies. I leave you to form a judgment of it according to the light of your wisdom and discernment. No words are adequate to express all its qualities and excellencies. Even the inscription of this virtue is so celestial that it is incomprehensible. They who have attempted to comprehend its mystery, and to explain what they comprehended, have found themselves engaged in an incredible difficulty, in an investigation not only sublime, but infinite. Ponder this divine inscription: HOLY HUMILITY.

3. Having invited those who are guided by the Holy Spirit to enter with us upon this spiritual investigation, as if assembled in wise and sacred council, and to bring to it, not with bodily, but intellectual hands, the tables of heavenly knowledge, engraven by the finger of God in their hearts, we inquired and sought with unanimous accord what was the sense, what the power, the excellency, of this hallowed inscription. One said: “Humility is the perpetual forgetfulness of our good actions.” Another: “It is a luminary which enable our souls to see their weakness and insufficiency.” A fourth: “It is the mild answer, by which we moderate or suppress the anger of our neighbour, and stifle contentions and quarrels in their birth.” A fifth: “It is the acknowledgment of God’s grace and mercy towards us.” Finally, one proclaimed humility to be “a heart truly contrite, and the renouncement of our own will.”

4. Having listened to, and examined with great care, these several opinions, I found that I was unable, by what they had stated, to comprehend in all its force and extent this most praiseworthy virtue. Being the least and the last of all, I could but gather up, like a whelp, the crumbs that fell from the table of these holy Fathers, these saints so wonderfully enlightened, and to give the following as my definition of humility. Humility is a grace which adorns the soul, which no tongue can describe, and which can be known only by experience. It is an ineffable treasure; a gift of heaven; one of the names even of God Himself, since it is declared in the Gospel: “Learn of me,” not from an angel, not from man, not from the written tables of the law, but “from me,” that is, from my immediate example, from the infusion of my light, and from the efficacious operation of grace in your souls, “because I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest to your souls”1 by the cessation of the temptation and warfare with which you are now harassed.

5. Humility is a holy vine, which varies its appearance according to the season in which we view it. It is not the same in winter as in summer, for then it lies upon the ground, beaten down by the winds of our several passions. In spring-tide it sends forth young shoots, and then flowers, which knit and form the fruit. In summer the virtues, which are its grapes, attain their maturity. These divers changes all concur to the gathering of the joyful vintage. Yea, we have certain points from which we can watch and ascertain the progress of these heavenly fruits, in the various stages of their growth; for immediately this spiritual vine blossoms in the garden of the soul, we begin to dislike the glory and the praises of men. They become to us unsavoury, and we cast them from us. We feel a solicitude to master and keep down the emotions and transports of anger. But when humility, growing day by day, has become a vigorous plant, and struck its roots deeply in our hearts, then have we not only a contempt of, but even a horror of our good actions, from the conviction that we are every day adding to the burden of our sins in secret and unknown ways, and that the abundant grace which we receive from God’s bounty but augments our chastisement, through our unworthiness of these extraordinary favours. Thus our souls, constrained to hide themselves in sentiments of their own baseness, remain invincible and proof against the assaults of their enemies. They hear without disturbance the turmoils the demons are exciting around them; and they regard as mere sport and diversion the stratagems which these infernal foes are plotting for their destruction, without experiencing therefrom the slightest injury. For this lowly estimation of themselves is a secure treasury, in which are stored up all their virtues, far beyond the reach of the powers of darkness.

6. So much have I ventured to say in few words concerning the flowers and the fruit, which are always in season, of holy humility. For with reference to the perfection and full maturity of this virtue, it is for you who are intimately united to God in hallowed friendship, to beseech Him to impart to you the requisite information. If I am unable to depict the grandeur and extension of this sublime virtue, it would still farther surpass my slender ability to explain its several qualities. Hence I will limit myself to the delineation of some of the more striking features of it, which have particularly fallen under my observation.

7. True and sincere repentance, tears which efface from the soul the stains of sin, profound humility in those who have recently commenced the service of God in holy religion, are things as distant from one another as the flour and the dough in bread. For the soul is bowed down even to the dust by true repentance, and kneaded and blended, if the expression may be allowed, with God by the moisture of heartfelt tears. When this dough has been baked by the fire of divine love, it becomes the solid, sacred bread of humility, free from all the adulterations of pride and vainglory.

8. This chain, composed of three strong links, or rather this rainbow, with its three primitive colours, has certain appropriate qualities. These three links, these three colours, are so united and blended together, and made indiscernible, that the presence of one is a sure indication of the others. That you may understand my meaning the better, I will now explain myself more fully and in detail.

9. The first, and one of the most excellent properties of this admirable trinity of virtues, is the sufferance of humiliation and contempt with joy and alacrity, and which the soul welcomes with ardour, as the salutary remedy for its disorders, and the remission of sin. The second property is, the complete victory over anger, and the lowliness of our mind in the midst of this victory. The third property, and the one which attains to the highest merit, is a distrust of our best actions, with confidence in the mercy of God, and an earnest and continuous desire for instruction.

10. As Jesus Christ is the end of the law and the prophets, in the justification of the faithful, so vainglory and pride are the end of the impure and disorderly passions, for the fall and ruin of those who neglect the amendment of their lives. But as humility is the inveterate foe and complete destruction of the passions, as the hind is of serpents, so does it preserve those, who choose it for their faithful companion, from their deadly venom. For whoever saw in humility the poison of hypocrisy? Can the infernal serpent find a single spot in this virtue wherein to coil himself? On the contrary, does not humility drag him from his lurking place in our hearts, and then having exposed him to the light of day, kill him?

11. We shall certainly never behold in those who possess this virtue the slightest appearance of hatred, contradiction, or disobedience, save when faith is in danger.

12. He who by a spiritual and holy marriage clasps humility to his bosom, is mild and peaceable. His heart is contrite, lowly in its desires, and easily melted to mercy and compassion. He is tranquil, cheerful, obedient, vigilant, full of fervour, and the conqueror of his passions. “The Lord,” says holy David, “Was mindful of us in our affliction; for His mercy endureth for ever. And He redeemed us from our enemies;”2 that is, from our passions and the impurities which they leave behind in the soul.

13. The solitary who is humble investigates not with curiosity things unknown, whereas he who is proud wishes to pry into the unsearchable judgments of God.

14. The demons appeared one day to one of the more intelligent of the brethren, and highly extolled him in his presence. But the religious, with great wisdom replied: “If you discontinue your disgusting high praise, and refrain from exciting in my mind thoughts of vanity, your silence and your departure from me, will make me conceive a favourable opinion of myself. But if you continue to praise me, your flatteries will merely serve to place before mine eyes the polluted state of my soul, since every one that is exalted in his own heart, is defiled in the sight of God. Withdraw, then, if you wish that I should be proud, or persist in praising me, if you desire me to be humble.” This ambiguous and cutting expostulation so utterly astonished and confounded those evil spirits, that they immediately betook to flight.

15. Let not your soul be a cistern, at one time filled with the living waters of humility, and then broken and left dry by the burning heat of vainglory and presumption. No; let it be a perennial fountain, from which humility may flood your interior with peace and rest, and lull into a sweet and pleasant calm the agitation of the passions, and feed with its pellucid waters the silver stream of voluntary poverty.

16. You are aware, dear brethren, that the valleys yield abundant crops of corn and fruit. These valleys are appropriate emblems of the humble, who, whilst surrounded by the mountains of pride and vainglory, remain steadfast in their lowliness, yielding the good fruit of charity and self abasement. Holy David did not say, “I fast, I watch, I sleep without any covering upon the bare ground;” but “I was humbled, and the Lord delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.”3

17. Penance enables us to ascend to heaven, tears knock at the gate, and holy humility opens it for our admittance. Hence, I adore this trinity of virtues in unity, (that is, in Jesus Christ,) and this unity in trinity.

18. The sun sheds his beams upon all visible creatures; humility vivifies and strengthens every thing achieved by reason and piety. As in the absence of the sun there is the darkness of night, so in the absence of humility all our actions are under a dark cloud, and blighted by the seering breath of vanity.

19. As there is but one spot on the face of the globe which has seen the sun but once, (the bottom of the Red Sea,) so a single thought has often produced humility, which we have already compared to the sun. As there is but one day on which every body then in existence rejoiced, (the day that Noah and his family departed from the ark,) so there is but one virtue which cannot be imitated by demons.

20. There is an immense difference between self-exaltation and self-humiliation. He who exalts himself summons everything to the tribunal of his own judgment. But he who rejoices in his lowliness suspends his judgment, and delights in self-condemnation. And when he is truly humble this self-censure becomes his daily exercise.

21. There are three things distinct in themselves,--to be humble, to labour to be humble, and to praise the humble. The first is the virtue of the perfect; the second, of the truly and sincerely obedient; and the third, of all the faithful.

22. The truly humble of heart will not hazard the forfeiture of his humility by vain and presumptuous discourses. For the tongue being the door which opens the treasure of the heart, we cannot, if our inward house be occupied with thoughts of humility, display ourselves to others in foolish boasting and vanity.

23. Not infrequently the horse which appears swift whilst running alone, is found slow when contending in the race with others. It may, in like manner, happen that an anchorite, dwelling alone, may believe himself very holy, but find himself very weak and imperfect when residing in a community.

24. When a person does not boast of the gifts of nature, it is an evident sign that he is recovering his health. But as long as he delights in the noxious odour of vainglory, he cannot relish the delicious perfumes of humility.

25. This lovely virtue allows no one who loves it to reprehend others, to judge others, to domineer over others, or to practise upon others any kind of deception. They who have contracted an alliance with humility, have no need, says the Apostle,4 of any other law but the law of this virtue.

26. The infernal spirits have suggested thoughts of vanity to a virtuous solitary, one who was earnestly striving for the attainment of humility. He, in order to defeat so dangerous a temptation, was prompted by divine inspiration to employ this laudable artifice. He immediately wrote upon the walls of his cell the names of the most distinguished virtues, such as perfect charity, profound humility, fervent prayer, angelic chastity. Then, when the thoughts of vainglory began to assail him, he said to them: “Let us go and find our judges,” reading at the same time the names he had inscribed on the walls of his dwelling, and thus communing with himself aloud: “When thou possessest all these virtues, thou wilt know how far thou art still from God.”

27. Humility resembles the sun. We cannot describe its efficacy or its substance. But if we cannot thoroughly penetrate its nature, we can, at least, form a judgment of it from its several effects and properties.

28. Humility is a sacred veil which conceals from us our good actions.

29. Humility is an abyss into which we plunge at the sight of our own nothingness, into which the spirits of darkness dare not look down, lest they should become giddy.

30. Humility is the strong tower spoken of in Holy Scripture: “A tower of strength against the face of the enemy. In thy tabernacle I shall dwell for ever; and I shall be protected under the cover of thy wings.”5

31. Besides the properties which I have just mentioned, and which, with one exception, are external and visible proofs of the rich treasury of humility, there are others, known to him only who happily possesses this virtue, and which have their abiding place in the retirement of the soul. You may, however, know with certitude what this great virtue is in your interior, when you are filled with ineffable light,--when you feel animated by an extraordinary fervour and love of prayer, and when, more especially, you preserve the purity of your heart without scorning your neighbour, though he has been guilty of transgression. All this must be preceded by an intense hatred of vainglory.

32. The knowledge of ourselves, and of all the various operations of the heart, is the germ of humility, and without which it is impossible that this divine plant can strike root and flourish in the soul.

33. He who knows himself knows how much he ought to fear God, and by pursuing this path of holy fear, will at length reach the gate of love.

34. Humility is the portal of heaven. It introduces those who come to it by the strait and narrow path, into that blessed kingdom. It is of such, I presume, that Jesus Christ speaks in the Gospel: “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved; and he shall go in and go out, and shall find pastures.”6 the pastures of the celestial paradise. They who begin their career in religious life from any other gate than that of humility, are thieves of their own life and salvation.

35. If we wish to acquire a true knowledge of ourselves, let us never omit our self-examination. If in the sincere sentiments of our hearts we esteem ourselves inferior to our neighbour, we may be assured that we are not far from the mercy of God.

36. It is impossible to kindle fire with snow. But it is equally impossible that humility, a virtue proper to Catholics only, and to such as are pious, should be found amongst those who are guilty of heresy.

37. We almost all say that we are sinners, and we, perhaps, say this from conviction. But it is by the proof of humiliations and reproaches that we can be certain that our hearts are in unison with our lips.

38. He who hastens his voyage to humility, as to a calm and peaceful haven, will never cease from doing all that his imagination can suggest, whether in word or action, whether by skill or address, whether by his diligence or his demeanour, whether by his prayers or his protestations, until by the aid of divine grace, and the exercise of painful humiliation, he has escaped the perils of the stormy ocean of vainglory. When free from this vice we are easily purified before God from all other sins, as we learn from the example of the publican.

39. There are Christians who preserve to the end of their days the remembrance of their past offences, although forgiven, that they may repress, by this subject of humiliation, the risings of vainglory. Others, thinking of what Jesus Christ has suffered for them, are always meditating upon the infinite debt which they owe to His divine charity. Many are continually humbling themselves by reflecting on their daily imperfections, Not a few, by their temptations, by the interior maladies of the soul, and by their sins, have acquired humility, the mother of all graces. In fact, there are some, though difficult to find at the present day, who humble themselves the more God showers upon them His favours, believing that they are unworthy to be the depositaries of these celestial treasures, and that every fresh grace adds a new debt, thus hourly augmenting that which of themselves they will never be able to liquidate. This is true humility. This is the beatitude of the present life, the highest recompense of the perfect. When you are told that some one has acquired in a few years that sovereign peace of mind which allays the agitation of the passions, be convinced that he has obtained this blessed tranquility, in so short a time, only by the happy way of humility.

40. Charity and humility are faithful and holy companions. The one elevates to heaven, the other supports us in our ascent with so firm a hand, that we are in no danger of falling.

41. Contrition, the knowledge of ourselves, and humility, are three distinct things.

42. Contrition is a lively sorrow which follows the commission of sin. He who falls into sin bruises himself, and when he afterwards kneels down to pray, he does so with entire mistrust of himself, but with a laudable trust in God’s mercy, making it the staff of his hope, wherewith to support his tottering and almost broken heart, and to chase away despair, which, like a furious dog, is ready to tear him in pieces.

43. The knowledge of ourselves is a light which shows us in the clearest manner the true state of our souls. It brings to our remembrance our slightest transgressions.

44. Humility is a holy science, of which Jesus Christ is the Master, who teaches it to those whom He Himself renders worthy of His lessons. It is hidden in the deepest recesses of the heart, and no effort of eloquence can express its secret and impenetrable virtue.

45. He who boasts that he feels within a breeze wafting upon its balmy wings the delicious perfumes of humility, yet takes ever so little complacency in human praise, or who stops to examine if the praise he has received be true, is very much deceived if he does not detect his own deception.

46. One day I heard a holy religious say to God, with lively sentiments of abasement: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory.”7 For he knew how difficult it is for our nature, weak as it is, to receive praise, without at the same time receiving injury. Hence holy David: “With thee, O Lord, is my praise in a great church. I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.”8 For I cannot receive the reward of praise in this life without evident danger of perdition.

47. If we may term it the last effort of pride to feign, through love of imaginary glory, virtues that we do not possess, it is likewise an unquestionable testimony of profound humility, to put on, wherever we may be, the semblance of faults, of which we are not guilty, through our love of humiliation. Actuated by this spirit, a virtuous solitary took bread and cheese, and ate them publicly, to lessen the esteem which had been formed of his sanctity.

48. Be always ready to displease men rather than God. For He takes pleasure in beholding us seeking with eagerness the ignominies which are displeasing to the eyes of man, that we may tread under our feet, may stifle, and annihilate the foolish passion of vainglory.

49. Seclusion, by which we absolutely renounce the honors of the world, is the commencement of our holy career in the exercises of virtue. For, to expose ourselves to the contempt and railleries of our neighbour, is a part that can be taken only by extraordinary characters. Be not astonished at what I have said. No one has been able to mount this divine ladder at a single leap.

50. Every one may know that we are true disciples of Christ, not when the demons are submissive to us, but when our names are written in the book of humility.

51. Citrons, when they cease to bear fruit, shoot all their branches upwards; whereas the more fruit they bear, the more do their branches hang downwards. Hence, this reflection, the soul will be as much more productive of virtue and heavenly fruit, as she is the more humble, the more cast down at the view of her own nothingness.

52. Humility is a sacred ladder by which we may easily mount up to God. Some, according to the expression of the gospel, ascend this ladder as far as the thirtieth, some the sixtieth, and others the hundredth round. The last round, which is the most sublime, is the achievement of those only, who have established their souls in peace, by the suppression of their passions. The second from the summit is attained by those who pursue the path of salvation with courage. But the last and nearest to the earth, all are able to mount.

53. He who knows himself thoroughly, will never through presumption, undertake any thing beyond his abilities. No, he will never allow his feet to stray from the path of humility, but will ever pursue his journey along this path with undaunted confidence.

54. As small birds tremble at the sight of the hawk, so the humble are alarmed at the least noise of contentions and quarrels.

55. There are many saved without being favoured by any revelations, or the gift of prophecy, or the power of working miracles; but no one can enter the nuptial chamber of paradise without humility. For humility is the faithful guardian of these extraordinary gifts of grace, which sometimes overpower and destroy all lowliness of mind in those who are not well grounded in solid virtue.

56. God, by the admirable dispensation of His providence and mercy, permits, for our greater humiliation, and much against our will, others to know our faults far better than we do ourselves, that we may attribute our restoration to health, not to our own wisdom, but to the assistance of our neighbour, and the aid of divine grace.

57. He who has a humble mind, holds his own will in horror and detestation, as his greatest deceiver. By the firm and lively faith with which he offers his prayers to God, he generally obtains both light wherein to see his duty clearly, and strength for its performance. He does not examine minutely the manners and behaviour of those who have the care of his conduct, but he surrenders himself entirely into the hands of God, who was pleased, in the days of old, to convey to the prophet Balaam, through the instrumentality of an ass, that knowledge with which He wished him to be acquainted. When he who is humble is conducted by the Spirit of God, in all his thoughts, words, and works, he will no longer trust, or give credit to, his own mind. For it is far easier for the humble Christian to mistrust his own judgment, than for the proud to submit to the decision and guidance of another.

58. It is the privilege of angels alone never to commit sin, even through ignorance. For that terrestrial angel, the illustrious Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us: “I am not conscious to myself of any thing; yet am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord.”9 Hence we ought continually to reprehend and condemn ourselves, that by the merit of this voluntary humiliation, we may efface our involuntary faults. Otherwise we shall experience considerable difficulty in submitting our accounts to God, when summoned before His tribunal.

59. He who asks from the Lord less than he deserves, will infallibly obtain from His infinite bounty, more than he has merited. Take the instance of the publican, who merely asked pardon for his sins, yet obtained the grace of justification. The good thief besought Jesus Christ to remember him when He should come into His kingdom, and he received the joyful assurance of being made partaker of all the glory and happiness of that kingdom.

60. As we perceive no fire in any creature, great or little, in creation, so neither is concupiscence, the natural fire of the passions, found in company with true and sincere humility. As long as we cherish this virtue, we cannot sin deliberately, but merely by surprise and frailty, for the heat of concupiscence, which foments the passions, is smothered and extinguished beneath the ashes of our humiliation. Willful sin does, indeed, cause concupiscence to revive, and at the same time undermines humility.

61. The Son of God, knowing the inward comportment of the soul with the external comportment of the body, girded Himself with a towel, and began to wash His disciples’ feet. By this example, He pointed out to us a short and easy method of acquiring humility. For the soul accustoms itself interiorly to what is done exteriorly, and strings its ordinary affections in unison with its actions. The principality, which Lucifer enjoyed above his fellow angels, was the occasion of his pride; abusing, therefore, that which was intended for his dignity, to his own eternal destruction.

62. He who is mounted on a throne, has not the sentiments of him who is seated on a dunghill. This, perhaps, was the reason why the venerable Job slept outside the walls of his mansion. For being perfectly humble, he said from his heart: “Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.”10

63. We learn from Holy Scripture, that Manasses, king of Judea, was one of the most wicked of men, that he had desecrated the temple of God, had profaned the divine worship and sacrificed to idols; yea, to such a depth of depravity did he proceed, that the people of his kingdom endeavoured to expiate his grievous impiety by solemn fasts and works of penance. Nevertheless, humility healed even his ulcerated and hardened soul. “If thou, O Lord,” exclaimed the holy David, “hadst desired sacrifice, I would, indeed, have given it; with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted. A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit; a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”11

64. When David was reproved by the prophet for the crimes of adultery and murder, this well disposed king had no sooner uttered the lamentation, “I have sinned against the Lord,” than he heard these words of consolation: “The Lord hath taken away thy sin; thou shalt not die.”12

65. Our fathers, men worthy of eternal remembrance, have told us that manual labour is the path by which we may attain to humility, and forms also the basis upon which it is to be established. But obedience and rectitude of heart, naturally so opposite to vanity, are, in my opinion, the sure means by which we may obtain this eminent virtue.

66. If pride transformed angels into demons, may not humility change men, who once lived as demons, into angels? Hence they who have fallen into sin, however grievous, should never lose their confidence in God.

67. Let us earnestly strive to reach, as soon as we can, the lowest paths of humility. If we are too cowardly to push onwards to this deep abiding place of the lowly soul, let us, at least, renew our attachment to it, and never sever ourselves from this virtue; since without its lovely mantle God will not crown our other virtues with His heavenly and meritorious grace.

68. There are many exercises of virtue which may be termed the nerves of humility, or may be considered as ways, though not always certain, by which we may arrive at this virtue. These exercises are to be poor in heart and affection, to leave the world by a retirement unknown to the world, to conceal our wisdom, to be simple and sincere in our words, to ask alms, to hide our rank or dignity, to banish all vain confidence in ourselves, and to suppress all unprofitable conversation.

69. Nothing humbles a soul more than poverty, and that mode of life which requires from us every day the practice of this virtue. For we prove our merit and our love of God, when we cast down all the aspiring thoughts of the heart with unwavering perseverance.

70. When you gird on your armour to combat, never fail to take humility for your ally; then may you walk securely upon the asp and the basilisk, sin with its despondency, and tread upon the lion and the dragon, which are the demons in league with our own flesh.

71. Humility is a divine and holy ceremony which withdraws the soul from the abyss of sin, and marches with it in solemn procession to heaven.

72. Having, one day, contemplated the incomparable beauty of this virtue, I sought with astonishment and admiration to know whence it derived its origin. With a gay and smiling countenance, it made me this reply: “Why do you wish to know the name of my parents, since none can lay greater claim to my parentage than myself? Hence I will not inform you until you shall have entered into the house of the Lord, to whom be honour and glory, for ever and ever.” Amen.

As the sea is the source of fountains, so is humility the parent of discretion.


  1. Matt. xi. 29.

  2. Ps. cxxxv. 23.

  3. Ps. cxiv. 6-8.

  4. I Timothy i. 9.

  5. Psalm lx. 4.

  6. John x. 9.

  7. Ps. cxiii. 9.

  8. Ps. xxi. 26.

  9. I Corinth. iv. 4.

  10. Job xlii. 6.

  11. Psalm 1. 18.

  12. II Kings xii. 13.



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