The virtue of humility is the most difficult to recognize, because its manifestation is found more in what is absent than what is present.
This riddle of humility is what makes it difficult to practice. And for this reason, we should beseech the Mother of God, for grace and light to be humble. For this is a work we can accomplish, if God first grants us the grace to be such.
And, as in all virtues for common Christian life, we find a most wonderful example in the Blessed Virgin, our Heavenly Mother!
It is often said how exalted Our Blessed Mother was and is; or how many great things She accomplished, and how we should imitate Her in this, by being generous and noble-hearted. Indeed, this week, on the Feast of Her Incoronation in Heaven, we might be tempted to admire Her for having achieved so much, as if She exemplified the virtues of the career woman of today.
However, such a consideration is gravely lacking in one consideration. That Our Lady never took the initiative when grace had not first suggested the work. In fact, if you consider Our Lady’s life, you can find absolutely nothing, which She did without God’s grace leading. And this fundamental spirituality of the Blessed Virgin is evident in Her own self-recognition as the “handmaid of the Lord.”
A handmaid is a servant who waits upon the beck an call of her Lord; doing only what He asks, and remaining in waiting for His next command.
This is the greatest humility of a servant of God; to serve God, rather than using the service of God to promote oneself and one’s own interests.
Oh how many priests and religious and laymen and woman have undertaken great apostolates, for the sake of vanity. Some even deceiving themselves that, so long as good works were being done, God was pleased.
This is simply not true. It is true, that good works in helping others to please, know, love and serve God better, do please God in themselves, that is considered as actions. But it is not true that a good work done for vainglory or out of presumption, is in the person doing it, something pleasing to God. It may even be hateful.
This is the chief explanation for all the scandals in the Church; undertaken many times by priests or religious or laity, who began doing good works, and seemed to be holy; but were doing their own will. Even a holy priest, religious, or layman, can often err in this regard, and fall from God’s grace.
Oh! Let us beseech the Blessed Virgin to be spared from such a horrible temptation and fate! So difficult to recognize!
The great evil of pride and vainglory, when they undertake good works, is that the sinner finds himself unable to detach himself, and becomes a slave to pride and vainglory, in doing good works! How many priests, to whom God gave the grace to covert souls, lose their own souls, because they do this, not for God’s glory, but their own! How many religious, to whom God gave the grace of an austere and zealous vocation, lose their own souls, because they do this, not for God’s glory, but their own! How many laymen and women, to whom God gave the grace to be devout Catholics, lose their own souls, because all they did, or most of what they did, they did not for God’s glory, but their own!
Yes, we can misuse God’s gifts, graces, virtues, carisms, even our own vocation, to damn ourselves in a way we cannot even recognize, without a special grace!
How shall we be delivered by such a subtle and treacherous temptation?
Let us contemplate the Blessed Virgin more, and let us consider Her virtue of Humility.
Our Lady waited for the Lord. She did not undertake good works which impinged upon the fundamental duty of the Christian life: the observance of God’s commandments and the pursuit of virtue. She had a delicate sense of Her own state, and recognized that if God did not take the first step by giving Her the grace to do a good work, or suggest it; it was humble to not presume that one should do it.
Such a spirit protects the soul from attachments not only to good works, and seeming virtues, but to a self-consideration, which is founded upon great pride, namely that “I am able to do a meritorious work, simply because I will it!”
No, we are not able to do anything of the kind. God’s graces and virtues and inspirations are gifts, we do not deserve them, let alone merit them by the mere fact that we have received other gifts. Inspirations, especially, which are actual graces, we do not deserve, even if we have been faithful. And if we have not been faithful, it is an even more horrible sin of presumption to believe that we do deserve them.
None of this leads to the error of Quietism, which held that one should eschew all acts of virtue and charity, and merely seek to be passive before God. No, rather, we see in the example of Our Lady at the Annunciation, that when God sent His messenger, Our Lady responds, first with a question, second with humble submission, third with zealous charity in response to the knowledge divinely communicated, that her cousin was in need.
Indeed, it is not presumption if God by His grace and angels should enlighten us to know the needs of others; nor is it presumption to help others, when their grave necessity is manifest readily to us.
But it is presumptuous to make of good works a sort of career, so that one seeks to be the “best” in such a good work, or “famous” in doing it, or to earn gainful employment thereby, as if good works are a sort of material for economic activity, or career building.
We are nothing, but God’s servants. And as St. Francis reminds us, “One is in the sight of God that which he is, and nothing more!”
We can detect this most subtle temptation to do good works for which we are not called, by the disturbance it causes in our soul; which disturbance promotes pride, vainglory, impatience with others, unjust anger, accusations, negative comparisons of others, criticisms, detraction, back biting, murmuring and calumnies.
If we have some humility, we ought to fear such sins and vices; and protect ourselves by asking our neighbors and friends, if they think our good works are stained with such and the like, since others can see our faults better than we can.
For this reason we read of nothing in the life of the Blessed Virgin, which She did on her own initiative; but that everything was done by obedience to God, or to her human superiors; and when having fulfilled these, She took refuge immediately in solitude and prayer, to await God’s word regarding Her next service to be rendered.
Let us strive to imitate Our Blessed Mother in this simple humility, which is easy to practice. And let us, each one, beseech Her to forgive all of us for our pride, vainglory and presumption in doing good works, God has not asked us to do.
At the same time let us take note that when we take the initiative and do not wait for God’s grace, we will very quickly be led to violate some virtue such as obedience, duty, or propriety; and that our works will have no lasting spiritual effect.
For example, if we take the initiative to do some good work, without considering whether our present duties and state of life allow us to undertake it, without neglecting them, we will often find that the attraction of doing some good work leads us to neglect our fundamental duties.
How often, for example, does one encounter a layman or lay woman, married, who is so engaged in good works outside of his or her home, that his or her children lack proper discipline, affection, and care?
Or how often does one encounter a religious, who has become so famous in one apostolate, that the apostolate becomes a cult of personality, rather than a work for the Lord!
On the other hand, if God does inspire or suggest a good work, it will always past the “test”, as one recognized by these characteristics:
1) Its suggestion is peaceful, and does not stir up our pride, vanity or presumption.
2) Its accomplishment does not require us to omit the duties of our state in life.
3) Its fulfillment will not put us in occasions of sins of impurity, or of some other dominant vice in to which sins we have habitually fallen.
4) The good work when done will bring effects, of conversion to the wicked or ignorant, and sweetness and consolation of spirit to the faithful.
5) Virtues will increase with the work done and by its merit God will lead us to other works profitable to Our Soul.
Contrariwise, when peace, virtue, humility, and Christian concord and harmony are lost among God’s faithful, in doing a good work, we probably have done it on our own initiative, and not by God’s grace.
May Our Lady deliver us from such an evil, and teach us Her humility!