It’s no coincidence that Jesus began his most famous sermon with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Humility is the gateway to God, Abba John the Dwarf said, and it is only when we have acknowledged our moral and spiritual poverty that we are ready for a Savior and Sanctifier to redeem our lives; only when we have, like the wedding at Cana, run out of wine (John 2:1-12), that we are ready to receive his life-giving Spirit.
What’s sometimes overlooked is that humility is not only the gateway to kingdom of God but also undergirds and infuses everything we do in the Christian life from beginning to end. T.S. Eliot summed it up well in his poetry: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
For the practicing Catholic, humility begins and leads to conversion, Baptism, and regeneration and ends with the believer prostrate before the King of Kings throughout eternity in the Beatific Vision. In between these two events are multitudinous acts of humility during our earthly sojourn in our prayers, participation in Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, trips to Confession, etc., all culminating in our Last Rites.
The wisdom of humility of the Lamb of God is endless. He is the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:18-20) and yet he is seen as a lamb freshly slain in the eternity to come (Revelation 5) who was the only one worthy to open the scroll and the seven seals. In between eternity past and eternity future, he humbled himself in descending from heaven, becoming Man, being born in a manger, submitting himself to his parents, being baptized by John, washing the feet of his disciples, suffering affliction after affliction, all culminating in a most ignominious death.
Cultivating the wisdom of humility can only be enhanced by such books as The Way of Humility (Cistercian Publications), by Andre Louf, OCSO. Dom Louf served as abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Mont des Cats in northern France from 1963 to 1997 and then lived as a solitary near the provincial village of Simiane-Collongue until he died in 2010.His little book has two parts: a twenty-page essay followed by several selected quotations on humility starting in the New Testament and ending with St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). These quotations alone are worth the price of the book, connecting the reader with the august, early tradition of the endless wisdom of humility.
It’s a book that conceivably could be read in one sitting but I wouldn’t recommend rushing this little gem. Subsequent readings glean new insights and refresh old ones. I’m on my fourth time through and don’t plan on loaning it out anytime soon.
If the book was a wine, it could be described as initially having scholarly notes followed by a strong experiential and devotional finish. In the beginning of his essay, Dom Louf grapples with a major issue in the history of Christian spirituality: Is humility merely one of the virtues (or a by-product of one of the virtues: e.g., see Aquinas and temperance) or does it have a more eminent place in the development of the believer’s sanctification.
In looking at the New Testament usage of the word for virtue (arete) and examining the failed efforts in patristic literature to harmonize biblical concepts of humility with Greek philosophy, Louf clearly sides with Cassian who called it “the mother and mistress of all the virtues,” and Isaac the Syrian, who said that “What salt is to food, humility is to the virtues…”
St. Basil went so far as to call humility the all-encompassing virtue because it contains within itself all the others. This makes sense because, if pride is at the root of the Seven Deadly Sins, then it follows that humility undergirds and infuses their opposite, life-giving virtues.
After making the case for the eminent place of humility, Dom Louf leaves the scholarly realm and begins to navigate more experiential waters. This section hearkens back to very first paragraph of the book where he quotes St. Anthony who said, “Without temptation, no one can be saved.”
Louf claims that God abases us and puts us in the crucible of diverse trials. We often feel overwhelmed with temptations, but, in our repeated calling out to God for grace in a time of need, humility is born. This humility is the key in overcoming in our hour of future testing, because God gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud.
Saint Anthony came out of his hermitage in the Egyptian desert and looked out and saw the many snares of the devil spread out over the entire world. He cried out to heaven: “My God! How can anyone be saved?” A voice responds from heaven: “Humility.”
We learn how weak we are and that “…apart from me [Christ], you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We learn that the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak and hence heed Christ’s command to “watch and pray” amidst the vicissitudes of life.
Dom Louf calls humility a “salvific journey,” and, on that journey, one is likely to get their heart broken. Hence, in Scripture (Psalm 50:19) and in monastic literature (e.g., Cassian), we read about having “a humble and contrite heart.”
An Egyptian text attributed to Macarius the Great (“A Letter to His Sons”) talks about repeated and severe trials and temptations, and how, “from this difficult combat that humility, that broken heart, goodness and mercy issue forth.” We have treasure in earthen vessels (II Corinthians 4:7) and those vessels must be cracked by many afflictions for the treasure to be revealed.
The kernel of wheat must fall into the ground and die (be broken open) before it can bear much fruit. Louf says that a broken heart “takes us into the very heart of the gospel as well as the nodal point of asceticism and all Christian mysticism. According to Pseudo-Macarius it is the very foundation of the Christian faith: ‘to have a heart wholly broken.’”
In choosing a life of asceticism, Dom Louf says, the monk is moving towards temptation on purpose. Humility can emerge out of this process unless the monk obtains a good opinion of himself because of his successes.
As Isaac the Syrian says, “When humility is lacking, asceticism and virtues are in vain.” God may want to send the monk (or lay person) a plentitude of consolations and diversions, but must instead send him more trials and temptations to bring him to brokenness.
But even if the believer should fall into grave and frequent sin, God can redeem and bring something good out of it. Our sin becomes a “happy fault” (felix culpa).
The apostle that denied Christ three times becomes the rock that the Church was built on. The woman with the bad reputation cleans his feet with her tears and hair and anoints them with an expensive perfume (Luke 7: 36-50): her many sins have led to a brokenness that is symbolized in the breaking open of the alabaster flask and filling the room with the fragrance of her devotion.
This is why the believer must not give into despair, even after many stumbles. Louf says: “It is possible that the most perfidious sin is not the one which precedes sin but rather the one which follows sin: the temptation to despair from which humility-once learned-will allow one to escape.”
Dom Louf closes his essay with a long quote from philosopher and Christian, Jean Guitton, near his death at the age of 100. An excerpt: “Even one’s sins become for us a source of humility and love…To be plunged into humility is to be plunged into God, for God is the foundation of that abyss…humility obtains for us things that are too lofty to be taught or explained; humility attains and possesses what even speech cannot.”