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Humility — Foundation Of The Spiritual Life

November 10, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

As has been demonstrated over the past two weeks, temperance is the cardinal virtue that “moderates the attraction of pleasures, assures the mastery of the will over instincts, and provides balance in the use of created goods” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 383).
Although most often associated with man’s innate appetitive drives to preserve himself as an individual and as a species, we saw that many other moral virtues are also closely associated with temperance, some of which are summarized by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ:
“[Among] the virtues that coincide with temperance are clemency that remits the punishment due to a guilty person; meekness that restrains even justified anger; modesty that controls internal affections and bodily movements within the limits of right reason; and moderation that tempers curiosity and the excessive desire for knowledge [studiousness]” (The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, p. 202).
Even man’s need for a reasonable amount of rest and relaxation is regulated by a virtue that is annexed to the cardinal virtue of temperance — eutrapelia.
Fr. Hardon continues by specifying the virtue that will be the focus of this installment — humility — which the Servant of God describes as having as its basis a “profound self-knowledge that leads people to regard themselves as small and undeserving of praise or recognition” (ibid.).
It is linked with temperance because its purpose is to moderate an impetuous desire within man: to lift himself up or to see in himself an excellence that does not correspond to right reason.
To preface this topic, let us reflect briefly on a quotation attributed to St. Augustine regarding the vital importance of humility in the spiritual life:
“Humility is the foundation of all the virtues; therefore, in a soul where it does not exist there can be no true virtue, but the mere appearance only. In like manner, it is the most proper disposition for all celestial gifts. And, finally, it is so necessary to perfection, that of all the ways to reach it, the first is humility; the second is humility; the third, humility. And if the question were repeated a hundred times, I should always give the same answer” (Cultivating the Virtues: Self-Mastery with the Saints, p. 41).
Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas characterizes humility as “the foundation of the spiritual edifice” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q.161 art.5, ad 2). St. Teresa of Avila equates humility with “walking in truth” in her spiritual classic entitled The Interior Castle:
“Once I was pondering why our Lord was so fond of this virtue of humility, and this thought came to me — in my opinion not as a result of reflection but suddenly: It is because God is supreme Truth; and to be humble is to walk in truth, for it is a very deep truth that of ourselves we have nothing good but only misery and nothingness” (book VII, chapter 10, n. 7).
In another of her spiritual masterpieces, The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa uses an analogy from the game of chess. She likens the irresistible power of the virtue of humility to the queen, the chess piece that has the greatest power to “checkmate” the King.
“The queen is the piece that can carry on the best battle in this game, and all the other pieces help,” explains the Carmelite saint and doctor of the Church. “There’s no queen like humility for making the King surrender. Humility drew the King from heaven to the womb of the Virgin, and with it, by one hair, we will draw Him to our souls. And realize that the one who has more humility will be the one who possesses Him more; and the one who has less will possess Him less (chapter 16, n. 2).
The etymology of the word “humility” is from the Latin humilitas which is derived from the word humus (“earth” or “soil”). According to St. Isidore, “a humble man is so called because he is, as it were, ‘humo acclinis,’ i.e., inclined to the lowest place” (STh II-II, Q. 161, art. 1, ad 1).
The Angelic Doctor goes on to state that “humility, in so far as it is a virtue, conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-basement to the lowest place” (ibid., ad 2).
Humility, then, is the virtue that keeps us from reaching beyond ourselves and moderates our desire for greatness. It restrains the unruly desire for self-importance and leads us to an orderly love of ourselves based on a true appreciation of our position with respect to God and neighbor.
It allows us to realize our smallness and misery before God, enabling us to see ourselves as we are in the eyes of God — not exaggerating our good qualities or denying the gifts we have received from Him. Humility properly exists in the will, but is dependent on a right understanding in the intellect. It is a virtue that is necessary for us to fully realize that everything good within us comes from God while all defects are from self, the result of disordered attachments. It rejoices, as it were, in seeing that we are creatures, that we are nothing compared to God, and thus rejoices in being subject to God.
In a certain sense, the virtue of humility, which opposes pride, is everything in the spiritual life in that it removes obstacles for the reception of grace and is the foundation of all the other virtues. It is the virtue which empties the soul of self-love and pride (the vice contrary to humility) and creates a vast capacity for grace, which God is always ready to fill. Without humility there can be no solid virtue, and it would be impossible to take a single step in the spiritual life. With it, other virtues are able to grow in depth and perfection.
In a preface he wrote for Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo’s spiritual treatise entitled Humility of Heart, Herbert Cardinal Vaughn (d. 1903) describes the virtue of humility as “the alphabet out of which every other virtue is formed and built up. It is the soil of the garden of the soul, ‘the good ground’ on which the divine Sower goest forth to sow His seed” (p. viii).
Similarly, in his work entitled Humility: Wellspring of Virtue, the prominent German philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (d. 1977) states that “humility is the precondition and basic supposition for the genuineness, the beauty, and the truth of all virtue” (p. 5).
Moreover, Scripture itself frequently emphasizes the importance of humility. For example, St. James says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). St. Matthew tells us that Jesus proclaimed that only the humble will enter Heaven: “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” (Matt. 18:3-4).
So critically important is the virtue of humility in the spiritual life that without it, the other virtues cannot even be acquired, much less can they grow and flourish. Like charity, humility principally concerns love of God, and secondarily concerns love of our neighbor for God’s sake.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains how important a humble disposition is for one to pray properly:
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God. But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130:1) of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted (cf. Luke 18:9-14); humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC, n. 2559).

Happiness And Humility

To be sure, however, although humility can rightly be described as a fundamental virtue and the foundation upon which other virtues rest, it cannot be identified as the greatest of all virtues.
As explained by Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP in Spiritual Theology, “[Humility] is surpassed by the theological virtues, the intellectual virtues, and by justice” (p. 302).
St. Thomas explains further: “After the theological virtues [which have the last end for their object], after the intellectual virtues which regard the reason itself, and after justice, especially legal justice, humility stands before all others” (STh II-II, Q. 161, art. 5). The greatest of all virtues is charity, for as St. Paul says in his Letter to the Colossians: “Above all these put on love [charity], which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).
In conclusion, it is apparent that humility is an absolutely indispensable virtue for one to attain sanctity and to ultimately come to see God face-to-face forever in Heaven.
“The irresistible attractiveness of humility allows us to establish a certain equivalence between humility and the gift of God to a soul, that is, its perfection” (P. Marie-Eugene, I Want to See God: A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality, p. 386).
In comparison to charity, the greatest of all virtues and essentially equivalent to communion with God, it is accurate to say that “the depth of our humility equals the height of our charity.” It is unmistakably impossible for man to come to a true definition of happiness without acquiring and practicing the virtue of humility.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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