THE SPIRITUAL MASTERS OF THE CHURCH agree that the “virtue of humility attracted the Holy Trinity into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart” (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux). Saint Jerome says that God chose Mary to be his Mother “more on account of her humility than of all her other sublime virtues.” Saint Augustine comments that “Mary’s humility became a heavenly ladder by which God came into the world.” And Saint Bernard adds that, though Mary “pleased God by her virginity, she conceived by her humility.” As Our Lady herself attests after the Annunciation, God “has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness” (Lk 1: 48). “In the new situation created by her divine maternity,” writes Father Raniero Cantalamessa, “Mary’s soul moved quickly and naturally to its point of truth, namely her nothingness, and nothing and no one could change this. In all this, the humility of the Mother of God is seen to be a unique miracle of grace.”
Humility before the gift
We want to share in that miracle of grace! Life without humility does not work. Father Simon Tugwell remarks that “most of our obstinacy covers up a certain degree of emptiness, a certain degree of dishonesty, of masquerading and posturing, of being uncertain of ourselves; that is why it has to be so unyielding. It can only preserve itself at the expense of a certain ruthlessness, maybe even cruelty and disregard of others.”
Humility begins in the awareness of what is most “down to earth” (“humility” from the Latin humus meaning “ground or earth”) – namely, that life is given. Everything I have and am is a gift from Another. This is why Saint Thomas Aquinas says that “humility’s rule lies in a judgment” – a judgment regarding the fact of our real nothingness. Without humility, our limitations tempt us in one of two ways: either we are scandalized by them, which makes us despondent, or we deny them, which makes us grandiose. But humility gives us a placid acceptance of our nothingness, saving us from the extremes of both self-contempt and “sanguine selfassurance” (Saint Thomas Aquinas).
Acknowledging the Presence
The example of the Blessed Virgin Mary shows us how humility makes one “submissive and ready to receive divine favor” (Saint Thomas Aquinas). There is a twofold dynamic to humility. On the one hand, as we have said, it is not possible to be humble if we deny our nothingness. But on the other hand, we cannot be humble if we fail to acknowledge the merciful presence of God acting in our life. This is the glory of Our Lady’s humility. “Humility mainly concerns a person’s subjection to God. It properly regards the reverence which bows down before God” (Saint Thomas Aquinas). Humility blesses us with a serene acquiescence before our nothingness that becomes a begging for the Infinite. God loves to be acknowledged by our nothingness.
“The one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14: 11; 18: 14), promises the One who was “humble of heart.” Authentic humility creates space in a soul that God refuses to leave empty; he fills it with himself. “No one makes himself naught except to let God fill the void” (L. Lavelle). A humble person is one who has decided to renounce pretentiousness in favor of the purpose that God has for him or her. “Perfect humility consists in constantly making oneself small for the sake of love, to elevate others” (R. Cantalamessa).
The mortification of humility
It is no surprise that recollection and vigilance distinguish the humble person’s life. “Humility disposes one to free access to spiritual and divine blessings” (Saint Thomas Aquinas). But those blessings come to us in the most subtle ways and – as Our Lady discovered – often as a surprise. Nothing is easier than for the noise of our self-assertive thoughts to drown out God’s voice speaking deep within us, delicately. Thus, humility craves silence… a silence that permits us to become detached from willfulness and absorbed in what God wills for us. Humility enables us to hear God communicating his love to us in just the way he wants to love us.
Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.