In the last conversation, St. Francis talked about external humility with Philothea so that she would not worry so much about accessory things like beauty, honors, etc. Now, he will guide her into internal humility–humility of the heart. I’ve chosen to use just headings for this one as well since it is a lengthy chapter.
Don’t Be Shy About Being Grateful to God for the Interior Gifts Received
But you, Philothea, would have me lead you further in the practice of humility, for that of which I have been speaking is rather wisdom than humility. There are some who neither will dare consider and dwell upon the individual grace which God has conferred upon them for fear of vainglory and self-conceit, but they are mistaken. For if indeed, as the Angelic Doctor tells us, the sure way of attaining to the love of God is to dwell upon his mercies, the more we appreciate them, the more we shall love Him; and as everyone is more alive to private than public benefits, they should more especially consider them. Assuredly nothing can so humble us before the compassion of God as the abundance of his mercies; nothing so humble us before His justice as the abundance of our misdeeds. Let us reflect upon all He has done for us, and all we have done against Him; and as we count over our sins in detail, even so let us count over His mercies.
It is Healthy to Know What He Has Done for You
We need not fear to be puffed up with the knowledge of what He has done for us, if we keep well before us the truth that whatever good there may be in us, is not of us. Though a mule is laden with the precious and perfumed treasures of a prince, is it not a clumsy, filthy beast? “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? And if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). On the contrary, a lively consciousness of mercies received makes us humble, for such knowledge gives birth to gratitude. But if in the consideration of God’s grace any vanity were to slip in, we should find an infallible remedy in the remembrance of our ingratitude, our imperfections, our weakness; and if we reflect on what we have done without God, we shall require no further proof that what we do when He is with us is not of ourselves or of our own strength; we shall rejoice in it certainly, and rejoice because we have done it, but we shall give the glory to God, who is its author.
Thus the Blessed Virgin declared what great things God had done in her, but only in order to humble herself and exalt Him, “My soul,” she says, “doth magnify the Lord…Because He that is mighty hath done great things to me.” (Luke 1:46-49)
Markers of Superficial Humility for Self Reflection
Sometimes we profess that we are nought, that we are weakness itself, and the very offscouring of the earth. But we should be ill-pleased to be taken at our word, and generally esteemed according to what we say. On the contrary, we pretend to fly and hide ourselves, in order to be followed and searched after. We pretend that we should be amongst the humble, and take the lower place, but it is in order the better to go up higher. True humility does not affect to be humble, and makes few lowly speeches, for she not only desires to hide other virtues, but, above all, to hide herself; and if it were lawful for her to lie, or deceive or offend others, she would appear outwardly proud and haughty, so as to conceal her real self, and live unknown and in concealment.
Have a True Connection with Your Heart
My advice, therefore, is, that you do not abound in expressions of humility, or, at least, let a deep inward feeling agree with whatever you say outwardly. Never cast down your eyes without humbling your heart, and do not pretend that you wish to be among the last, unless you truly desire it in your heart. This I hold for so universal rule, that I make no exception to it, only sometimes ordinary courtesy may require us to concede the superiority to those who evidently have no claim to it, and in that there is neither deception nor false humility, for in such a case the concession of superiority is a beginning of honor, and since we cannot give it them altogether, it is well to give what we can. I should say the same with regard to certain expressions of honor and respect which may not appear strictly true, but which really are true if he who utters them has in his heart a sincere intention to honor and respect him to whom he addresses them; for, although the words themselves may be exaggerated, yet there is no harm in following the conventional rules of society in using them. Still, I should wish that our words were always as far as possible in conformity with our feelings, that so we might be actuated in all, and through all, by cordial sincerity and candor.
Knowing and Accepting Self and Others, Both Our Bruises and Graces
A really humble man would rather let another say that he is contemptible and worth nothing, that say so himself. At any rate, when he knows that such things are said, he does not contradict them, but consents willingly; he believes it himself, and is content that others should share his opinion.
Other False Sorts of Humility
There are many who say that they leave mental prayer to perfect men, they themselves are not capable of it; others that they dare not communicate frequently, for they feel themselves unworthy. Some say they fear to disgrace religion if they pretend to it, by reason of their frailty and sinfulness; or they refuse to devote their talents to the service of God and their neighbor, because they say that, knowing their weakness, they fear lest they be puffed up if they do any good thing, and so in doing good to others, they injure themselves. All these excuses are deceptive, not only false humility but evil, inasmuch as they seek tacitly and secretly to find fault with the things of God, or at least to cover their own self-love, indolence, and evil disposition under the cloak of humility.
Be Sincere With God No Matter How You Feel
“Ask thee a sign of the Lord they God, either unto the depth of hell, or unto the height above,” said the prophet to Achaz. But Achaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.” (Is 7:12). Oh, wicked man, he feigns deep reverence for God, and under pretense of humility refuses to seek the grace proffered by His divine mercy! Could he not perceive that to refuse God’s favors is mere pride? That His gifts must be gratefully received, and that true humility lies in obeying Him and following His will to our utmost? And His Will is that we be perfect, uniting ourselves to Him, and imitating Him to the utmost of our capacity. The proud man who trusts in himself may well fear to undertake anything, but the humble are bold in proportion as they feel their own inefficiency; and as they count themselves weak they acquire strength, because all their reliance is in God, who delights to magnify His Omnipotence in our weakness, and to exalt His mercy upon our misery. We may then humbly and devoutly presume to undertake all that may be judged proper for our advancement by those who guide our souls.
Don’t Pretend or Boast
Nothing can be more foolish than to fancy we know what we do NOT know, and no vanity is more contemptible than that which affects knowledge which it does not really possess. For myself, I would neither boast of what I do know, nor pretend to be more ignorant than I am.
Be Honest to Help Others
When charity requires, you should impart freely and gently whatever is necessary for your neighbor’s instruction, or may serve to comfort and help him; for although humility conceals her gifts in order to their preservation, she is always ready to produce them when charity requires it, thereby strengthening, enlarging, and perfecting them. In this, humility resembles that tree of Tylos, which at night folds up and conceals its beautiful flowers, opening them again to the rising sun; for which reason the inhabitants of that island say that the flowers sleep at night. So humility enfolds and conceals all our virtues and human perfections, producing them only at the call of charity, which is not an earthly but a heavenly virtue, not a moral but a divine perfection, and the very sun of all the other virtues, over which she should always preside; and therefore such humility as is opposed to charity is undoubtedly spurious.
Folly for the Lord Should Be from a Sincere Outpouring of Joy and Not from Vanity
I would neither affect wisdom nor folly, for if humility forbids me to affect wisdom, simplicity and honesty forbid me to affect folly; and as vanity is opposed to humility, so all artifice, affectation, and pretense are opposed to honesty and simplicity. Nor because certain eminent servants of God have assumed a garb of folly must we think to imitate them, the inducing cause of their actions being so rare and extraordinary that they cannot be an example to us. When David leaped and danced before the Ark of the Lord, it was not assumed extravagance of demeanor, but simply that his external actions corresponded to the unusual, immeasurable gladness of his heart. Therefore, when Michol, his wife, reproached him with his folly, he was not offended at her contempt, but continuing in his earnest and hearty demonstrations of joy, declared himself willing to bear some reproach for God’s sake. In like manner, if any despise you, or count you as foolish and contemptible on account of those actions which proceed from a true and hearty devotion, humility will teach you to take pleasure in such honorable contempt, the cause of which is not really in you but in those that reproach you.
Look for the next conversation between St. Francis and Philothea, coming soon…
**from An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales (Tan Classics, 2010).