In order to understand properly the character of true humility, we have presented to us a picture of it by Our Lord Himself in the Gospel.
He places before us two persons, one of whom was regarded as a model and type of justice and sanctity, and the other a type and impersonation of every crime. The first had every virtue, but so full was he of his own holiness and superiority that he despised those who did not live as he did. He seems to have all the virtues except one – Humility.
The other seems to have had all the vices, except one, Pride. Not a virtue could he or did he lay claim to except one, humility. And yet Our Lord declares he was more pleasing in the sight of God than the other.
St. John Chrysostom does not hesitate to say that the state of sin with humility is better than the state of justice with pride, because pride destroys in a short time the piety of the just, while humility effaces sin and obtains the sanctification of the sinner.
Let us contemplate the humility of the publican.
He commenced its exercise at the very door of the Temple, the farthest off from the altar, the last place, because he considered himself the last of all. He knew himself, and this knowledge was the foundation of his humility. He knew his career for his whole life; how many acts of injustice, fraud, oppression, etc., he had been guilty of, and the very recollection of these sins made him think very little of himself, and seek the lowest, the last place. The Pharisee had already gone up to the altar, the people had advanced far into the Temple, but he cared not; he remained away, hidden as it were, and caring to be seen only by Almighty God. He bent his knee at the door, bowed down his head, and prostrated himself.
This is not all. Not only does he despise himself, he consents to be despised. The Pharisee is already declaiming his good works, and thanking God for his goodness, and, before he ends, insults the poor publican.
He answers not, he moves not, he raises not his head, though he might have accused the Pharisee of vain-glory. But, no, he makes neither reproach nor complaint. He is convinced that in these humiliations he is receiving his due. The very thought of his sins reminds him of that.
Dear people, we do not know ourselves. We do not study our hearts and consciences, therefore we have a very small share of humility. And, on the other hand, because we do not desire to humble ourselves or allow ourselves to be humiliated, therefore the cloak of darkness remains over our hearts and we are blind to our faults.
It should only be necessary for us to look into our hearts to discover the depth of our misery, and according to St. Jerome, it is in that very deep misery we should find the precious pearl of humility. This is why St. Augustine so constantly cried, “Lord, grant that I may know Thee; for the more I know Thee, the more will I love Thee; but, at the same time, grant that I may know myself, for the more I know myself, the more will I despise myself.”
And truly, dear friends, when we come to look at our misery, what a subject of humiliation for us. In common with all others, we are merely a handful of dust. And then our souls, our minds and intellects! What ignorance, what prejudice, what mistakes we are capable of! Our hearts, what malignity is there not within these – evil that we are almost unwilling to acknowledge. How many passions – anger, impatience, secret envy, petty jealousies! What corruption in our wills! What inclination to evil! What inconstancy in doing good! This is the history of the human heart in general, and if each one of us were to give a particular account of all the thoughts, sentiments, impressions, misrepresentations, all the words, deeds, and frailties that he or she has been guilty of during life, is there any one, even the best of us, who would not readily exclaim, “What is man, O Lord, that Thou art mindful of him?”
A soul penetrated with such knowledge, and judging with the light of grace and reason, will care little for the vain honors, preferences, and considerations of the world. It was this knowledge that made the poor publican convinced that, instead of any injury, the Pharisee was doing him justice.
“He raised not his eyes to heaven.” While the Pharisee strode before the altar, in the face of the multitude, and proclaimed his good deeds, the poor publican not only remained near the door, but absolutely was so confused at the sight of the altar that he did not even make so bold as to raise his eyes to heaven, nor toward the altar, nor any one present. He remembered all his acts of injustice, and he remembered also that the God of Israel called Himself their Father, and so kept down his eyes in confusion before God.
When humility resides in the heart, it will readily appear exteriorly. It will not be necessary to assume it; that would not be humility, it would be pride, disguised under the mask of humility. A truly humble person tries to hide even that virtue. Nevertheless, St. Jerome says that glory as surely follows that virtue as the shadow follows the substance.
But where humility shows itself most efficaciously and truly, is in receiving the Sacraments, in assisting at Mass, in prayer, etc. What sources of grace are not the Sacraments for those that are truly humble! What contrition for sin in the Sacrament of Penance, what resolutions of amendment, what desires to do penance and please God! What profound adoration at Mass, what sublime acts of homage, what thanks giving comes up from the heart of the humble soul in the presence of the Incarnate God at Mass! Faith will picture, for instance, the angels, the pure, spotless angels, veiling their faces, and then recollecting one’s own littleness, and the presence of the same God, what sentiments will fill the soul! “He struck his breast, saying, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”
Here we have another and very great characteristic of true humility. This poor sinner knew he had been a great sinner, indeed but is he driven away from Almighty God? No, the greater his sins, the more disheartening his state, the more confidence he shows in the mercy and goodness of God!
And just because he declares and acknowledges that he is unworthy of pardon, therefore God pardons him all. What an example of instruction, and what a consolation for all who have been unfaithful to the grace of God! An example to be followed by every one, even the most exalted in sanctity, for the most exalted are, indeed, the humble. We, too, must come to the feet of Our Lord, and we must say to Him, with the same confidence as the poor publican, “Dearest Lord, be merciful to me! I confess that I have not always been as faithful to Thee and the whisperings of Thy grace as I should have been, but for this very reason, because I have forgotten Thy goodness, and because I have been unfaithful to Thee, this is the very reason for which I come to Thee. Thou alone canst make me holy, Thou alone canst make me victorious, Thou alone canst give me a heart truly virtuous, and bind it to Thy holy law and will with the bonds of grace which will not break.”
Happy those humble souls, that as every day passes over, spend some time in remembering the sources of gratitude to God; in dwelling on their own nothingness and miseries, and, on the other hand, on the unspeakable goodness of God.
Such a practice nourishes humility and confidence in God, consoles and strengthens the weary soul, and begets a disgust in the heart for the false and frivolous consolations which this poor vale of tears offers us.
Thus, also, do we learn the lesson of the Heart of Jesus Christ, meekness and humility. “Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of Heart.”