The spiritual life is indubitably a continual ascent, since perfection consists in union with God, and God stands above all creation. To arrive at God, we must ascend, but the paradox that I emphasize lies in this: that the secret of ascending is to descend. St. Augustine, in his inimitable style, thus explains this paradox: “Consider, O brethren, this great marvel. God is on high: reach up to Him, and He flees from you; lower yourself before Him, and He comes down to you.”
St. John of the Cross picturesquely teaches the same in the title page of his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel, from which I take only these lines: “In order to come to be all, desire in all things to be nothing.”
And what is the basis of the marvelous “Little Way” taught to souls in modern times by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus except a simple, sweet, and profound way of descending in order that the soul may be lifted up by the divine power of the very arms of Jesus?
All this and much more that could be quoted is simply a commentary on these words of our Lord: “Everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
This teaching is clear and well known, but it is commonly forgotten in practice, not only by reason of the obstacles that the passions always place in the way when we try to live in conformity to the divine teachings, but also because souls are troubled by this divine paradox, even in their very judgments.
There is, indeed, a natural tendency to judge of divine things by human standards. To this St. Thomas Aquinas attributes our defections from good, for, he says, “Man wishes to measure divine things according to the reasons of sensible things.” This explains the basis of these paradoxes and the frequent difficulties of souls, even when they know the doctrine.
This descending in order to ascend, which is the foundation of humility, appears natural and human in its first stages; and therefore Jules Lemaitre was able to say, “Humility is not only the most religious but also the most philosophical of the virtues. To resign oneself to be only the little that one is, and to fear to pass the limits of this little — is not that the consummation of wisdom?”
But Christian humility, particularly in its highest perfection, excels philosophical humility as Heaven does the earth. And if, at first, the lowliness of humility finds quarter in the narrow confines of human reason, little by little it overflows such restricted limits and confounds the human spirit.
In the spiritual life, you must continue to descend
In the spiritual life, souls humble themselves with more or less effort, yet ever retaining the conviction that they must become little.
But when they descend to a certain depth, they become dismayed and grow weary of descending. It seems to them that they are being deceived and that the time has now come for them to ascend, because they are not aware that, in the way of spirituality, one ascends only by descending, and that, to arrive at the summit, the soul must never weary of going downward.
Let this “never” be well understood, for, just as in the beginnings of the purgative way, so also in the heights of the unitive, the one and only secret for ascending is to descend.10
With the light of God, the soul makes steady progress in seeing its own misery and in sinking down into it; and with each new illumination, it seems that its eyes have arrived at the base of its nothingness. But our miserableness has no bottom, and only the grace of God can sound the profound depths of that abyss; for us, new revelations of our nothingness always remain, even though we may live a long time and receive torrents of light from God.
We can always descend lower. We can always sink deeper in our misery. And to the measure that we descend, we ascend, because thus we come nearer to God, for one can see God better from below, and thereby more sweetly enjoy His caresses and more intimately experience the charm of His divine presence.
But in the depth of our soul, there always remains the tendency to measure divine things by our human standard.
Hence, with each new revelation of our misery, our confusion increases, and we would gladly close our eyes in order not to see — just as certain sick people do not wish to know of their illness because they feel that not to know it is not to have it, as though the knowledge of one’s malady were not in itself the beginning of a serious cure.
For this reason souls become dismayed at temptations, desolations, aridities, faults — in a word, at everything that gives them the impression they are falling lower. They wish to ascend, because they desire to arrive at the summit, because they burn to be united with God. Therefore, in perceiving that they are apparently descending under the impact of temptations, the weight of their faults, and the void in their souls caused by desolations, they grow confused and grieve because they forget the divine paradoxes of the spiritual life.
Fortunately God does not always heed our protests and our cries of anguish. Instead He pours out upon us those precious graces, even though they may be bitter, which involve temptations, aridities, and even faults, as a mother, despite the wailing and the protests of her child, firmly applies the painful remedy that will give him health.
Someday we shall understand that among the greatest graces God has given us in our life are precisely those disconcerting ones which make us think that God is abandoning us, when, on the contrary, He is attracting us; those which cause us to judge that we are falling away from our ideal, when, on the contrary, we are drawing nearer to the sweet goal of our hopes.
O souls eager for perfection, do not weary of humbling yourselves. Have no fear of whatever plunges you into the depth of your misery!
We do not depart from God by lowering ourselves; we do so only by exalting ourselves. “Reach up to Him, and He flees from you; lower yourself before Him, and He comes down to you.” Do not forget this: if we raise ourselves upward, God flees from us; if we humble ourselves, He comes down to us.
Humility attracts God’s mercy
It seems to me that God, in His own way, feels the dizziness of the abyss. Our miserableness, when it is acknowledged and accepted by us, exerts an irresistible attraction on Him. What, save misery alone, can attract mercy? What, save emptiness, can appeal to plenitude? Whither shall the infinite ocean of Goodness pour itself except into the immense abyss of our nothingness?
“I will speak to my Lord, whereas I am dust and ashes.”11 These words of Abraham, “whereas I am dust and ashes,” ring in my ears as the cause and the reason of the daring of the Patriarch. “I will speak to my Lord, whereas I am dust and ashes”: Behold the one and only reason, powerful and all-embracing, that we can adduce before God to speak to Him, to petition Him, in order to press Him for the fulfillment of our most daring desires. And that foundation possesses something of the infinite, seeing that it embraces, as it were, even infinity. I am dust and ashes; for that reason, I place no bounds in my petition for mercy; for that reason, I have confidence; for that reason, I have hope; for that reason, I dare to ask the Lord even for “the kiss of His mouth,” as the spouse in the Canticle of Canticles.12
When shall we be convinced that our miserableness makes us “strong against God”?13 When shall we take cognizance of the fact that to plunge ourselves into our nothingness is the assured means to attract God?
When, in our eagerness for God, we desire to possess Him, let us not urge our purity or our virtues or our merits to oblige Him to come to our hearts; for either we do not have these things, or we have received them from Him. Let us show Him what is properly our own, the unspeakable misery of our being. Let us lower ourselves deeper into the depths of our nothingness. Then the Lord will feel the dizziness caused by the abyss, and He will plunge Himself into the limitless void with the impetuous force of His mercy and His goodness.
We must not think that this secret for drawing down God is the unique property of the beginnings of the spiritual life. No, it applies to all of it. Thanks be to God, our misery has no limits, and thus it can never exhaust infinite mercy.
On the peak of a unique perfection stood the Immaculate Virgin Mary, and in her inspired canticle, she attributes the marvels that the Omnipotent effected in her to a glance that the Lord gave. Do we know at what? It was her humility: “Because He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid.”14
The mystery of the union of God with the soul takes place in the depths of the abyss — in the mutual self-abasement of God and the creature.
“Love must always be humble,” says Louise Margaret Claret de la Touche.15 She is right. Love is by nature humble; humility is one of its innate characteristics. For love is forgetful of self; it is a bowing down before the Beloved. And when there is question of divine love that takes place between nothingness and the All, it is utter self-abasement; it is adoration.
Imitate Christ’s humility
God abased Himself in order to love us. He “emptied Himself,” as St. Paul says. And the soul that perceives in its inmost being the deep and intoxicating wound of love also empties itself. And in the abyss of this mutual self-abasement, the loving mystery of union is consummated.
The humility of this union is indeed a new kind of humility. It is something completely heavenly, something profound, most sweet, delicious. It is something that only he who has experienced it can know. In the splendor of the light with which God bathes the soul that He approaches, it comprehends its misery in a new way, just as the feeble flame of a little lamp would appear to be darkness if the light of the sun engulfed it. A soul seeing itself revealed in this light would wish to hide itself, yea, to annihilate itself; but this hiding with its Beloved, this self-abasement, would be so that He alone might shine. And such is the anxiety that it feels to abase itself, and so great is the joy that it experiences in its littleness, that if it were anything, even though something great, it would consume itself entirely in a holocaust of love to God, and it would lose itself in the loving self-effacement involved in adoration.
And each new union is a new, deeper self-effacement. Then the soul takes joy in seeing before its eyes an immense abyss into which it can descend, for it knows from sweet experience that each degree of self-abasement is a more intimate embrace with the Beloved; and when once wounded with love, it desires the “kiss of His mouth.” Now it no longer beseeches with words that are impotent to express the ardor of its longing. Instead, it lowers itself into the abyss in order to force the Beloved to come to seek it in the depths and to regale it with the sweetness of His ineffable caresses.
But humility does not attain its perfection until the soul becomes transformed into Jesus. Then humility is no longer that timid thing which labors painfully with human miseries in the first stages of the spiritual life, nor is it even the heavenly self-surrender of union. In transformed souls, humility is the very humility of Jesus, which is reflected in them. It is the divine thirst for self-effacement that burned in our Lord’s innermost being, that burns in the interior of a soul by a participation of love. It is that divine high road which the Word of God took when, as a giant, He joyously began to run the pathway of love and came down upon earth skipping over the mountains. And in that roadway, He carries with Him the souls who also run after Him, attracted by the sweetness of His perfumes.
What was this delightful roadway but a swift and headlong descent into the abyss of self-effacement? “Do you wish to know, dearly beloved,” says St. Gregory the Great, “the leaps that He made? He came from Heaven into the womb of the Virgin; from this immaculate womb, He went to the crib; from the crib He went to the Cross; from the Cross He went to the tomb.”17 The holy Doctor failed to mention the final leap that perpetuates all the rest — namely, that to the Eucharist. And I say that this excels the others, for as St. Thomas sings, “On the Cross only His divinity lay concealed, but here [in the Eucharist] His humanity is also hidden.”
Hence, if Jesus is ever descending, why should we wish to ascend? The soul that is transformed into Him wishes to share His lot, to go where He goes and to abase itself whither He has abased Himself. And, inflamed with the divine madness of Jesus, it possesses an insatiable desire of self-effacement. It becomes little with Jesus in the crib, and it offers itself as a victim on Calvary. It wishes, like Jesus, to be a living host and to disappear from view and to treasure its hidden God under the veil of its misery.
But in the depth of that mystical effacement, which is the spiritual life, in the distinct stages of that glorious descent, the soul ever rises. This it does because, first of all, it approaches God, then it becomes united to Him, and finally it becomes transformed into Him forever. And God is the highest; He is the supreme summit; He is the one and only Most High.
The secret of perfection, then, consists in that divine paradox, “one ascends by descending,” and the soul that understands it and never tires of descending finds rest and happiness in the heart of God, in accordance with the profound thought of St. John of the Cross: “In order to come to be all, desire in all things to be nothing.”
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Archbishop Martinez’s Worshipping a Hidden God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.