Those who desire God and thirst for the joys of heaven are careful to pray for and cultivate the virtue of humility, for without it spiritual advancement remains an unattainable goal.
By F. K. Bartels
11 December 2012
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. (James 4:6-10)
Advent. It is a sacred season of preparation. We look for Christ the Savior who is come, who is coming, and who will come again. Standing ready as a thirsty people who yearn for the One who gives life and light, who renews, and who beckons us toward the wondrous, burning depths of everlasting communion with God, we await the Redeemer who is this moment “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Originating from the indwelling Spirit within, our being suddenly erupts with a desire for He Who Is our every desire, and we cry out in hope: “Adveniet!” He will come! Yet such a cry of need and love is impossible if we lack humility. In fact, our hope in Christ is itself a sign of humility: for in the absence of this self-emptying virtue in which we gaze into our interior through the light of truth, recognizing ourselves as a needy people entirely dependent on God, we cannot possibly anticipate the arrival of our Savior whose Sacred Heart opens itself in infinite divine and human love to the finite hearts of humanity.
Nevertheless, the humble will readily admit that pride, the archenemy who lay in wait along the road to spiritual perfection, ceaselessly labors to worm its way into the soul and thereby destroy the untold beauty within.
St. Teresa of Avila, the great Doctor of Prayer, often warns of the dangers of pride and the importance of ridding ourselves of a false sense of self-reliance. Jesus himself reminded her of the crucial importance of recognizing Whom we obtain our strength from: “For even though you may be in the light, at the moment I withdraw, the night will come. This is true humility: to know what you can do and what I can do” (The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol 1, ICS Publications, 1987).
Devoid of humility, there can be no spiritual advancement, for in such an ill state the mysterious well of the human heart is filled with pride, leaving no room for the Spirit, the Giver of Life whose delicate and loving tenderness will take no part in forced entry, to transform us into a work of profound and everlasting beauty. Consequently, it is helpful to reflect on the virtue of humility that itself opens the way to God; for the steps leading to Mount Zion, the city of the living God (Hebrews 12:22), are carved from this most necessary virtue.
In the first place, we must understand that humility is a gift from God. That is, while virtues are habitual perfections acquired through practice, true and authentic humility is not something that originates solely from within us; nor is it something we ourselves acquire purely by our own efforts. We would not even exist without God’s willing it: all our energy, every good desire is supplied by God. When we finally take proper action, we are simply participating in and making use of whatever gifts God has already given us for our own good or for the good of others. Virtue, then, originates from the grace of God.
Knowing the importance of humility, let us ardently beg God for it. Then, when our Lord gives us an opportunity to exercise the virtue of humility during a moment of embarrassment, or perhaps when it becomes evident that we cannot perform a task according to our personal “high standards” or those of others, we must strive to give up the false image of ourselves we find so precious, appealing, vital and desirable, and accept humility with gratitude. What others think of us is not, ultimately, what matters; nor is what we think of ourselves if it be colored by pride or distorted self-knowledge. What is important, is what we “look like” in the eyes of God: do we love God above all else for his sake? Do I love God more than I love the self-manufactured image of myself that I labor so long and hard to defend?
We must constantly guard against developing a “high opinion” of ourselves. Are we easily offended? Is everyone else to blame? Do we feel we must have all the answers and insist on giving what we think are those answers? Do we forcibly insert our answers into the sentences of others, or ourselves provide answers to questions directed at others? Can I remain silent and let others dominate the conversation, or must I take center stage? Do I view myself as the “holy-pew-sitter who blesses the church with my gracious presence among numerous others of lesser virtue”? Do I find that I often work hard in order to “save face”? Must everything be done my way?
What difference should it make if people see you as weak, frail, less than perfect and prone to mistakes? Is that not what you are? Is that not what we all are? We are ultimately made from nothing and sustained only by the almighty power of God! It is the secular world, the world of profit and efficiency and elevated self-worth and self-importance, the world that often lives as if God does not exist in which high and mighty accomplishments and worldly success mean everything. What matters, is our faithful love for God, our fidelity to him, and our kindness toward others and love for others. Therefore it is through our love for God that we become fully human and shine like the stars in the heavens; it is through our love for Christ and in making his life-story of humble service and love our story that we attain to greatness.
Further, it is the humble soul who gains access to the lovely, sublime wonders of the Divine Mind. St. Paul wrote that the “unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14-15). The spiritual person is a humble person, not boastful or overly assertive but “poor in spirit,” whose life is lived by the principles of the Gospel, and whose vision is unceasingly directed toward heavenly things. It was Jesus Christ, God made man who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). It is by our humility that God is moved to reach down, grip us in his powerful yet tender and compassionate hands, and thus raise us on high and set us upon meadows of delight, warmth and peace.
In The Imitation of Christ we read: “If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. . . . All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.”
In becoming humble as a little child, the season of Advent is made fruitful and the door to the Savior’s regenerative and transforming love is thrown open. It is as a little and trusting child that we are drawn into union with God. It is in our smallness that we are made great: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Mt 18:1-4).
This Advent, let us humble ourselves, which is none other than dying to self. Let us recognize our complete dependency on God who “is love” (1 Jn 14:6). Let us listen and respond to Christ’s voice transmitted by holy mother Church and thus belong to the truth (Jn 18:37; Lk 10:16); let us open our hearts, become as little children, and allow God to raise us up according to his good pleasure; let us nurture the seed of humility planted within us by God, that we may shout sincerely, confidently, and with joy: “Adveniet!” He will come!
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.