What Is Humility Anyway? A Conversation with St. Francis de Sales

This is the first of several talks St. Francis has with Philothea about humility. In this first conversation, he tries to move her away from aspiring to superficial (worldly) virtues.

PHILOTHEA: St. Francis. I just don’t understand humility. What does that mean? Does it mean to hate myself? To be a doormat? Does it mean to…to what?

ST. FRANCIS: “Borrow…empty vessels not a few,” said Eliseus to the poor widow, “and pour oil into them” (4 Kings 4), and before we can receive the grace of God into our hearts they must be thoroughly empty of all self-glory [vainglory].

PHILOTHEA: Vainglory?

ST. FRANCIS: The kestrel has a peculiar property of frightening away birds of prey with its looks and cries, for which reason the dove seeks it beyond all other birds, and lives fearlessly in its neighborhood; and so humility repulses Satan and preserves in us the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. For this reason all the Saints, and especially the King of Saints and His Mother, ever honored and cherished this virtue above all others.

PHILOTHEA: I don’t get it. What does vainglory mean? How is it different from humility?

ST. FRANCIS: We call vainglory that which we seek for ourselves, either for that which is not in us, or being in us, is not our own, or being in us and our own, is not worthy to be glorified in.

PHILOTHEA: Let me think a minute about what you just said…so that would be things such as…

ST. FRANCIS: Noble birth, the favor bestowed by great men, [and] popular esteem are not in ourselves; they either come from our forefathers or from the opinion of others.

PHILOTHEA: So our name or because an opinion from another makes us sound good to others, that does not mean much, or something like that???

ST. FRANCIS: Some are proud and conceited because they have a fine horse, a plume in their hat, or are magnificently attired, but who cannot perceive the absurdity of this, since if anyone has reason to be proud it is surely the horse, the ostrich, or the tailor! And how very contemptible it is to rest our hope of esteem in a horse, a feather, or a garment!

PHILOTHEA: True. It’s the same as having a car, a hairstyle, or name-brand clothes. Surely, it was not me who made any of those, or, even if I did, I cannot make those things be accepted as “cool.” Things should not define me. Mmmmm…

ST. FRANCIS: Another thinks of his well-trimmed beard and mustache, or his well-curled hair, his delicate hands, or of his accomplishments in dancing, music, and so on, but is it not very contemptible to try to enhance his worth or his reputation through such frivolous and foolish things?

PHILOTHEA: I get it. I know the type of people you are talking about. They used to be called fops or dandies, but they are called something else today.

ST. FRANCIS: Others who have acquired a little science demand the respect and honor of the world on that account, as if all must needs come to learn of them and bow before them. Such men we call pendants [those who present their knowledge in an ostentatious, dogmatic, or dull manner, often placing excessive emphasis on trivial details and formal rules].

PHILOTHEA: They tell others that all people need only learn from their studies and ask them to bow before them as if they knew everything? Oh, my gosh. I never thought of people making science into its own dogmatic formulation of rules with its own high priests, but I guess it can happen to people in any discipline, and you know what? That actually makes a lot of sense! Everybody only has a piece of knowledge, so if a person of science, literature, politics, prayer, psychology, religion, art, or anything claims they know everything, then persuades others to follow them with certain exacting behaviors, bowing to worldly mannerisms…anyone who is this extreme is a pendant! It doesn’t matter if they believe in God or not. If they claim to know more than every other person in the world with their one piece of knowledge, if they claim that they own all the rights to human progress because they think their one piece of a whole will lead the way, then they have succumbed to pedantry.

Sadly, I think anybody who falls into this pedantry works to persuade themselves and others to give up on God by calling all believers ignorant fools and hypocrites. Or if they are believers themselves, they believe they are better than all others who call themselves religious. They are creating their own dogma based on one piece of knowledge. Is it because they are really worried about the honors part, or the opinion of others? Are they going with the fads of the day? Are they so worried about being accepted that they have to say they don’t believe or twist what they do believe because they want to be considered intelligent? Are they so worried about fitting in that they make up a new way to pray, to learn, to teach, to be in order to be accepted by those who really don’t believe? Are they compromising their integrity just to fit in?

It is really silly if you think about it because all of the knowledge that they claim to have (and they might or might not have a piece) they make that one small piece become the entire scheme of all things, the key to everything, a mountain out of a molehill, a piece as the whole instead of a part of a whole. Besides that, all these pieces were not discovered without the knowledge and work of others, many of those others were and are believers. How sad! To think that only one discipline has all the answers to all our human questions! There has to be at least as many questions as there are people on the earth, but I am sure each person has more than one question. How can one discipline possibly answer all these questions? But one discipline, one area of study, is making that claim–that they can answer that question–that they have all the answers to every human need. Talk about dogmatic! Sheesh…Apparently these extremes can happen to anybody, even in the area of science, art, or whatever. Any discipline, any piece of knowledge can become pedantry if we are not careful.

Sorry, St. Francis. That was just a really thought-provoking piece of information. It really just got me thinking. Usually, people accuse religious folk of being this way, but it can happen to even those who claim no religion. I can see why people could lose their way with this. They see a piece and run with it as if it were whole. A person who really searches for the length, the breadth, the width, the depth of all things, knows that he cannot know all or prove all on his own. Anyone who makes that claim must be false, superficial, artificial.

Sorry. I didn’t mean to take up your time. Go ahead.

ST. FRANCIS: Others pride themselves on their personal beauty, and think that everyone is admiring them: all of them in their turn are utterly silly, foolish, and impertinent, and their glory in such empty things we call vain, absurd, and frivolous.

PHILOTHEA: Yep. I know the type. So how can you tell if a person is really humble?

ST. FRANCIS: You may judge of real worth as of real balm, which is tried in water, and if it sinks, and remains at the bottom, it is known to be precious and costly; and so in order to know whether a man is really wise, learned, generous, and noble, observe whether his gifts make him humble, modest and submissive. If so, they are genuine, but if they float to the surface and would fain display themselves, be sure that in proportion as they make a show, so are they less worthy.

PHILOTHEA: They get puffed up, arrogant, detracting all others, proud of themselves, thinking they “know-it-all,” can do anything they want to do, make up their own rules because they have a title, beauty, or some certificate of knowledge.

ST. FRANCIS: Those pearls which are formed or fed in the wind and thunder leave only a pearly shell with no substance; and so those virtues and attractive qualities which have their root and support in pride, self-sufficiency, and vanity, have but the outward show of excellence, and are without sap, marrow, and solidity.

PHILOTHEA: I think you just described a person who has no integrity, no sense of fellowship, and no sense of compassion.

ST. FRANCIS: Honor, rank, and dignity are like the saffron, which flourishes and increases most when it is trodden underfoot. All the value of beauty is gone when its possessor is self-conscious; to be pleasing it should be forgotten; and science becomes contemptible when it is puffed up and degenerates into pedantry.

PHILOTHEA: One uppers. They do it for themselves. Not for anybody else. They claim to being do it for others, but the others have to abide by their rules that work only for the piece without regard for the whole.

ST. FRANCIS: If we are punctilious about rank, title, and precedence, we both lay our claims open to investigation and contradiction, and render them vile and despicable.

PHILOTHEA: Perfectionists. I’ve been there. Done that.

ST. FRANCIS: For that honor which means something when willingly offered, becomes contemptible when it is sought after, demanded, or exacted.

PHILOTHEA: Greedy. I have tried to take on too much sometimes, I know.

ST. FRANCIS: When the peacock displays his gorgeous plumes, he lays bare also his deformities; and those flowers which are beautiful in their native soil, soon whither if we handle them.

PHILOTHEA: Foolish. Running without rest. I have also been involved with a person who was very much like you describe and our relationship winded up turning into dust. He had very superficial expectations of me that I could not live up to since these things come and go so quickly, but for him, according to others, he is considered a success because he is able to compete on that superficial plane. I am actually glad I am not there anymore. I was full of anxiety.

ST. FRANCIS: And as they who inhale the mandragora from afar off and for a brief space, find it very delicious, but those who inhale it near and for long become drowsy and ill: so worldly honors are acceptable to him who receives them indifferently without resting in them or seeking them eagerly, but they become very dangerous and hurtful to him who clings to and takes delight in them.

PHILOTHEA: I guess I should feel sorry for him, then. I am getting the sense that humility is a lot more beautiful than vainglory.

ST. FRANCIS: The desire and pursuit of [authentic] virtue tend to render us virtuous, but the desire and pursuit of honors tend to make us odious and despicable. A really great mind will not waste itself on such empty goods as rank, honor, and form. It has higher pursuits, and leaves these for the weak and vain. He who can procure pearls will not be satisfied with shells, and those who aim at virtue do not trouble themselves about honors.

PHILOTHEA: So in pursuing virtue, I can learn humility, which to me has a lot more depth.

ST. FRANCIS: Of course each man may enter into, and remain in his own sphere, without lack of humility, so long as he does it with indifference, and without effort.

PHILOTHEA : So, it’s okay to accept beauty, honors, titles within the context of your job or whatever, but do so with indifference for these external things so that the primary goal of seeking virtue and God is not lost. Science and all those other things are good but just need to be kept in balance.

ST. FRANCIS: Just as vessels coming from Peru laden with gold and silver bring also a number of monkeys and parrots which cost nothing, and add but little to their freight, so those who aspire to be virtuous, may well accept their rightful rank and honors, but always without bestowing much care or thought to them, and without being involved in cares, vexations, disputes, and anxieties in consequence.


ST. FRANCIS: I am not alluding here to those invested with public dignities, nor to special and important occasions, in which everyone is bound to maintain a fitting dignity with prudence and discretion, combined with charity and courtesy.

PHILOTHEA: That’s good to know. It would be really rude to not uphold dignity. So the other extreme would be to hate those superficial things so much that they become the focus of your life, so then you lose humility just as in the other extreme of loving them too much. These outer things are accessories, so to concentrate on them by hating them too much or by loving them too much is imbalanced. They should be accepted and let go of like water going in and out of the hand, but the balm of virtue, that is something that lasts, and therefore is so much more worthy of our attention. Thanks St. Francis.

St. Francis will cover internal humility in the next 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.

AND the Macmillan Dictionary for Students.

About lamehousewife

poetry, articles, thoughts, and quotes... on a quest to be authentic in my motherhood, sisterhood, and daughterhood, but i can tend to become Juvenalian sometimes, maybe in writing but also in life, reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as if i were hearing a friend speak to me about the how ridiculous some ideas can become, especially when they begin to drift into reality, mocking all of us really... i identify with Mary Magdalene, James, and Peter and am extremely grateful for that woman who said, "Yes!"...oh and i can be pretty lame...blessings to you, dear reader...pray for a single mother, her children, and the father of her children today!
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3 Responses to What Is Humility Anyway? A Conversation with St. Francis de Sales

  1. The Lord's Blog says:

    Vainglory—-Do we see it today in the radical agenda? I think we do.

  2. Pingback: Accepting Our Imperfect Life: A Conversation with St. Francis de Sales | The Lamehousewife Blog

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