Sections 11 - 15: Humility of the Heart - by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo
- 11. There is no Saint however holy and innocent who may not truly consider himself the greatest sinner in the world. It is enough that he knows himself to be man to recognize that he is liable to commit all the evil of which man is capable. As man, I have in my corrupt nature a proclivity to every evil; and so far as I am concerned I am quite capable of committing all kinds of sin, and if I do not commit them it is through a special grace of God which preserves and restrains me.
A tree does not fall while bending under its own weight and this must be attributed to the strength of its support; and in the same way if I have not fallen into every kind of iniquity, it must not be attributed to my own inherent virtue but only to Divine Grace, which by its goodness has supported me. Therefore how can I esteem myself more than another whilst we are all equal in human weakness? "For what is my strength?" [Job vi, 11] I am a son of Adam like every other man, born in sin, inclined to sin, and ever ready to fall into sin. I have no need of the devil to tempt me to sin; my own concupiscence is only too great a temptation; and if God were to withdraw from me His protecting and helping hand, I know that I should be precipitated headlong from bad to worse. When St. Augustine made his examen of conscience, he did not always find sufficient to excite within him sorrow and contrition, so he dwelt on those sins which he might or would have committed had he not been preserved from them by God's infinite mercy; and he grieved and accused himself and humbly implored pardon of God for the evil capacity he had to commit all kinds of heinous and impious sins. In this practice is to be found an exercise of true humility.
12. It has often happened that those who were more perfect than others have shamefully fallen, and this after a long period of good and virtuous works, showing the marvellous things that a man can do when able if abandoned to himself and left to the weakness of his own free-will.
God has shown His creative omnipotence by forming me out of nothing and making me a human being. Were God to withdraw His omnipotent preserving hand from me I should at once show what I am capable of when left to myself, by returning immediately into my nothingness. And, in the order of grace, the nothingness into which I relapse when left to myself is sin. How often "I am brought to nothing, and I knew not." [Ps. lxxii, 21] And what can I find to be proud of in that nothingness?
Give me grace, O my God, to know myself only as much as is necessary to keep me humble! For if I fully realized the insignificance of my own being and the extent of my malice which is capable of offending Thee in diverse inconceivable ways, I fear I should be so filled with horror at myself that I should give way to despair!
We have within ourselves, in our own experience and feelings a knowledge of how greatly our frail and fallen nature is inclined to evil. Today we go and confess certain of our faults, making the resolution not to fall into them again, and tomorrow notwithstanding we commit them once more.
At one moment we make up our minds to acquire a certain virtue, and the next we do just the contrary by falling into the opposite vice. At the time when we make these resolutions of amendment we imagine that our will is firm and strong, but we soon perceive how weak and unreliable it is, for we behave as though we had never purposed amendment at all.
Our heart is like a reed that bends before every wind, or a barque tossed by every wave. It is sufficient to meet with an occasion of sin, a movement of passion, a breath of temptation, for the will to yield to evil even when in certain moments of fervour we seem most firmly rooted in good. This is a strong reason for us to be humble and not to presume anything of ourselves, praying to God continually that He may deign to confirm in our hearts that which He works through His grace.
"Confirm, O God, what Thou hast wrought in us." [Ps. lxvii, 29]
Some masters of the spiritual life teach that it is better to divert our thoughts from certain heroic actions in which our weakness might lead us to doubt whether we should succeed or not; for example: if a persecutor should come and summon me either to renounce the faith or to die, how should I act? or, if I were to receive a terrible public insult, should I practice patience or resentment? No, they say it is not well to indulge in such imaginings because our weakness may cause us to fall before the idea of such a trial.
But should such thoughts arise, we can turn them to our good and use our very weakness to practice humility. When such ideas occur it would be well to say: I know what I ought to do on such and such an occasion, but I know not how far I can trust myself, because I know by personal experience that "my strength is weakened through poverty," [Ps. xxx, 11] and I have learnt on several occasions how my reason becomes blinded, my judgment weakened, and my will often perverted easily to evil. O my God, I can do all things if I am strengthened by Thy help; but without this I can do nothing, nor shall I ever be able to do anything! If I had to confess Thee I should miserably deny Thee; if to honour Thee by patience I should give way to vengeance; if I had to obey Thee I should offend Thee by disobedience. "Thou art a strong helper: when my strength shall fail, do not Thou forsake me." [Ps. lxx, 7, 9] Thy saying is quite true, O my God: "Without Me you can do nothing." [John xv, 5] Not only without Thee can I never do any meritorious act of virtue whatsoever, but I cannot do anything at all; as St. Augustine instructs me: "Whether it be little or whether it be great, it cannot be done without Him without Whom nothing can be done."
15. A beautiful way of asking humility of God was the following which was used by a great Saint. Lord, he said, I do not even know what humility is like, but I know that I do not possess it, and cannot of myself obtain it; and that unless I have it I shall not be saved; therefore it only remains for me to ask it of Thee, but give me the grace to ask it as I ought. Thou hast promised, O my God, to grant me all those things which I shall ask of Thee and which are necessary to my eternal salvation; and humility being most necessary to me, faith compels me to believe that Thou wilt grant me this, if I know how to ask it of Thee. But herein lies the difficulty, because I know not how to ask Thee as I ought. Teach me and help me that I may pray to Thee as Thou dost wish me to pray and in that efficacious manner in which Thou Thyself knowest that I shall be heard. And as Thou commandest me to be humble, I am ready to obey; but grant that through Thy help I may in truth become such as Thou dost desire. I ardently desire to be humble, and from whence comes this love and desire for humility if not from Thee, Who hast put it into my heart by Thy holy grace? Oh, of Thy goodness grant me therefore what Thou hast made me so love and desire. I hope for it, and I will continue to hope for it. "Strengthen me, O Lord God, that, as Thou hast promised, I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by Thee." [Judith xiii, 7]