This one is a tough lesson in humility, but St. Francis, step by step, is having Philothea learn to anchor her passions–especially those that sense unpleasantness, evil, suffering–with humility. First, he helped her count internal gifts as more important than external gifts (see What Is Humility Anyway? A Conversation with St. Francis de Sales); then, he showed her how to discern between false and authentic senses of inner humility in her heart (I Still Don’t Get What Being Humble Means: A Conversation with St. Francis de Sales); and here he will begin to teach her how to be happy with any kind of trial that she may be given.
He will frequently use the term abasement which should not be confused with debasement. Abasement is the acceptance of the imperfections of life, thus enabling compassion and humility to thrive rather than allowing arrogance or wrath or despair to reign as it would in debasement. Debasement refers to a loss of integrity and dignity for the sake of doing a sin or an injustice, accepting unacceptable behavior. Abasement, in contrast, seeks to retain the dignity of self and others as children of God, accepting the person, while debasement seeks to get rid of that dignity that all humans have. Abasement is that ability to ride out unpleasant feelings or the storms of life with as much grace as possible; debasement often lets the unpleasant feelings drive uncontrollably. Even more disturbing, debasement can also allude to a severe loss of unpleasant feelings to the point that a person is willing to take advantage of others, have no compassion for others, no sense of pain, etc. This is otherwise known as indifference which is just as deadly as wrath.
I thought I would provide a little more commentary to this post since it seems today that people are more prone to despair, probably from the adverse effects of materialism and idolization of outer beauty and sex. I just want to make sure that no one falls into a masochistic or sadistic interpretation of this lesson. In addition to some commentary, this will just have headings rather than the usual dialogue form to avoid wordiness.
What is abasement St. Francis de Sales?
A step further, Philothea, I would lead you, and bid you in every thing to welcome your own abasement. And if you ask what I mean, I answer that the word in Latin means humility, and humility abasement; so that when the Blessed Virgin says in her song of thanksgiving, that because the Lord regarded her humility, therefore all generations shall call her blessed, she means that God had looked favorably upon her abasement, her poverty and lowliness, in order to crown her with favors and graces.
The compatibility of humility and abasement—they work so well together!
Yet there is a difference between the virtue of humility and abasement, for the latter is that littleness, meanness, and imperfection which is in us, although we think not of it, but humility consists in really knowing and freely acknowledging our abasement. Now the perfection of this humility is not only to know and acknowledge it, but to take pleasure and delight therein, and that not from lack of spirit or energy [courage or generosity], but the more to exalt God’s Majesty and to esteem our neighbors better than ourselves.
This is where I hope to avoid confusion. First, “not from a lack of spirit or energy” means he wishes to avoid the false manifestation of humility which is despair. But he is also not suggesting sadism or masochism with “exalt God’s majesty.” I consider it to be dangerous to concentrate on building up one’s self-esteem too much because this can lead to self-idolization and pride; however, I also think it is dangerous to esteem others too much because this can lead to idolization of others and a subsequent despair in self. Pride and despair are partners of the same sort of problem. Pride often debases others while despair believes that it can do no better than live debased. They both doubt God’s ability to bring authentic dignity to self and others–pride because it cannot see and despair because it is too afraid to see.
We are at a time in history where people have lost all sense of healthy boundaries. It is not built into our societal structures to uphold these boundaries, but a healthy assessment of self and others that sees imperfection without being judgmental coupled with healthy boundaries to avoid being debased or to avoid being an accomplice in sin moves a person away from either extreme–pride or despair. This is why I think we need to watch how much we esteem others–people who idolize others tend to be easily manipulated. People who accidentally fall into moral relativism and/or materialism are more prone to being manipulated by these “idols” as well. Sadists will take advantage of those who are idolizing them, etcetera.
For some people, it may be more appropriate to see others as on equal footing so as not fall into this problem of idolizing and the subsequent manipulation by others. It is okay to recognize another person’s faults. For some, this is how they stay from developing the same bad habits and/or from joining in their sin. It is possible to accept the person without accepting their bad behavior and to “esteem” them in the way that St. Francis suggests. Thus, esteeming them in this sense is according them their dignity as a child of God. When you are looking out for others, you are less likely to be overly worried about your selfish interests. So, St. Francis wants you to make sure that you are thinking outside of yourself, but he does not intend to walk you into idolizing others. He values honesty in honor of Truth, but this assessment must done always with humility.
Accepting imperfections that can be honorable in the eyes of the world or abject in the eyes of the world. This section will move us away from depending on the world for advice about how we should feel about suffering.
The better to explain this duty to which I exhort you, I would have you remark that of the ills under which we labor, some are abject and others honorable; now, many are ready to endure these last, but few willingly submit to the former. For instance, take a devout hermit, whose garments are tattered and himself cold and needy; everyone honors him whilst they pity his sufferings; but if a poor mechanic, a needy gentleman endures the same, he is despised and ridiculed, and his poverty becomes abject. If one bound by vows of obedience receives meekly a sharp rebuke from his superior, or a child from his parent, it is called mortification, obedience, goodness; but if a man or woman of the world bears the same mortification meekly, it is called cowardice and want of spirit, albeit borne for the love of God. This, again, then, is an abject endurance. One person has a sore on his arm, another on his face; the one suffers only from the disease, the other has in addition to endure disgust and aversion and abasement.
Patience and humility help us accept our imperfect life and world.
What I say, then, is that we must not only learn to love our burden, which is done by the virtue of patience, but also to love its attendant abasement, which is done by the virtue of humility. Again, he is not encouraging sadism or masochism.
Although some authentic virtues are esteemed in the world, continue to strive also for the ones that may be more hidden or less meaningful in the eyes of the world.
Again, some virtues involve abasement, and some involve honor; for the world despises patience, gentleness, simplicity, and oftentimes humility itself; whilst it highly prizes sagacity, valor, and liberality. So, too, different fruits of the same virtue are differently esteemed; thus almsgiving and forgiveness of offenses are alike the result of charity, but whilst everyone honors the first, the world despises the latter action.
Aim to retain integrity in the eyes of God.
A young person who resists the example of his or her companions and will not join in the excesses of pleasure, drinking, gaming, dressing, or idle talk, is ridiculed and criticized by others, and his self-denial is called bigotry, or affectation; now to take such contempt gladly, is to rejoice in abasement.
Serving can have a sense of displeasure no matter the surrounding circumstances—an opportunity to strengthen humility is always available when serving others.
Again, we are deputed to visit the sick. If it be to a poor and miserable man that I am sent, it is an abasement in the eyes of the world, and, therefore, I will welcome it; but if I, on the contrary, am sent to the rich, the abasement is spiritual, for it is neither so worthy or so meritorious an act; therefore, I will still delight in it.
Don’t forget the value of having a good sense of humor and remaining light-hearted with mistakes, flubs, and slips.
You fall in the street, and in addition to the hurt you receive you become and object of ridicule—well, receive it gladly. There are some failings in which there is no harm beyond their abasement; and though humility does not require us to commit them, it does require that having committed them we should not vex ourselves on account of them. Such are little foolish sayings and doings, breaches of etiquette, and similar slips which we are bound in prudence and courtesy to avoid, but if we are guilty of them, then we should patiently accept the consequent abasement and receive it willingly as a practical lesson in humility.
Have you ever wanted to stick your foot in your mouth?
I would go further and say, that if I have been led through anger or wantonness to use unbecoming language, therein offending God and my neighbor, I should assuredly repent heartily, feel a lively regret for the offense, and do my utmost to make amends, but at the same time I would endeavor to welcome the abasement and degradation which are the result of my fault, and if it were possible to separate the two, I would undo the latter, whilst I humbly retained the former.
Seek amendment for faults already committed and seek remedies for other imperfections if and when possible.
But although we welcome the humiliation which comes to us from our defects, we must not omit to remedy these as far as may be by all fair and legitimate means; especially when they are of consequence. If I have got disease in my face, I would seek its cure, but not forget the humiliation I have endured. If I have done something which offends no one, I will make no excuse, for although I was wrong, the evil is temporary, and I will not set aside the degradation which is entailed, but if out of carelessness or foolishness I have given cause of offense or scandal to anyone, I will repair my fault with a sincere excuse, for the mischief is lasting, and charity obliges me to undo it. So occasionally charity requires us to remedy this abasement for our neighbor’s sake, who might be injured by our loss of reputation; but in such a case, whilst we conceal our degradation from the eyes of others, we must treasure it up in our own heart, and not lose the lesson it teaches.
Trials that come unexpectedly require more strength in humility.
If you ask me what are the most profitable humiliations, I reply that undoubtedly those will do us most good and serve God best which are accidental or attendant upon our position in life, because these we do not seek for ourselves, but receive them as God sends them, and His choice is always better than ours.
Trials that we expect should help us practice humility and should be in our vocation.
But if we must choose, no doubt the greatest are the best, and those are greatest which are most opposed to our natural inclinations, [provided that they are conformable to our vocation], for I say once for all, that our own will and preferences hinder and lessen almost all our virtues.
All for the King!
Ah, who can teach us to say with the royal Psalmist, “Better the threshold of the house of my God than a home in the tents of the wicked?” (Psalm 84:11). None can teach us that holy lesson save Him who, to exalt us, lived and died, the scorn of men, and the outcast of people.
Don’t worry, it takes practice to learn humility in adverse situations. I understand.
I have said to you many things which will seem hard as you read them, but if you practice them, they will become sweet to you as sugar and honey.
The next conversation will be on, “How to Preserve a Good Reputation Together with the Practice of Humility.” It works so well with understanding this one with a balanced perspective, but I didn’t want cover too much today. I suggest obtaining a copy of “An Introduction to the Devout Life.” I hope I didn’t confuse anybody. Just remember the adage, ‘accepting life on life’s terms.’ That works well with this conversation.
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).
AND from the translation printed by Eremetical Press (2009, 400th Anniversary Edition) to help with the more difficult sentence structures and vocabulary.