As I mentioned in a recent essay, over the years I’ve noticed a fair number of Christians who have shipwrecked their faith because of unrealistic expectations about how their lives would play out. They remind me of the children of Israel, who, because of the affliction they experienced in the wilderness, became offended at both Moses and God and wanted to return to Egypt (a Type of the world) so they could eat their fill of leeks, garlic, cucumbers, and meat.
An important early lesson for the practicing Catholic is to learn that we live in what philosopher John Hick called a “soul-making world”, not an “all-my-dreams-will-come-true” world. Sometimes dreams do come true in the areas of marriage, family, work, friends, and career, but no one is insulated from the trials of living in a fallen world that we call the Vale of Tears:
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Mt. 6:34).
So, in this world this side of eternity, we have our ups and downs, our days of blessing and misfortune, our times of humiliation and exaltation. Here, we can learn a lot from the silkworm.
The silkworm eats the mulberry leaves and secretes a substance that turns out to be mulberry silk, one of the finest fabrics in the world. Think of the mulberry leaves as what happens to us in this life, the good and the bad, and the silk as the result of responding properly to what happens to us.
The silk is humility. St. Bernard said, “He is humble who converts all his humiliations into humility and says unto God: ‘It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me’” (emphasis mine)
We also humble ourselves in our exaltations: “[My son], Humble yourself the more, the greater you are and you will find favor with God” (Sir. 3:18; emphasis mine). We may have been recently promoted to middle-management in our company but need to remember that our existence, gifts, and the favor of those above us all came from God: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (I Cor. 15:10).
Turning our humiliations into humility is a different matter. We are a garden and sometimes we have the garbage of life (humiliations) dumped on it: coffee grounds, egg shells, melon rinds, fish entrails, etc.
It’s difficult to see how this is then converted into nutrients that will help produce a garden of wonderful fruits and vegetables. If you think about it, this is exactly what happened on a cosmic level at Golgotha: the stunning harvest was the redemption of the world for those who believe.
A helpful first step in turning our humiliations into humility is to change our attitude. Instead of deeply resenting this Vale of Tears, we need to start to see it as the ideal crucible in configuring our lives to the humility and Passion of Christ.
This is why St. James said to “count it all joy” (James 1:2-4) when we are buffeted with many trials because of all the good fruit that comes out of it. The apostle Paul said that “all things work for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
I know a devout Catholic man who I’ll call “Kyle” who had an entire decade of one setback after another. He told others that, in many ways, he believed he was getting what he deserved for past sins in his youth and looked at his present affliction as a way of going through some of Purgatory in this life.
Still others learn to become “victim souls” and “offer up” their suffering to the Body of Christ in order to fill up his sufferings (Col. 1:24). A friend with a history of kidney stones offers up his pain for the redemption of unbelieving loved-ones.
St. Vincent de Paul said, ““Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” When we are humbled, we are brought back to objective reality.
A good friend of mine, who has since gone on to his reward, was big, strong as an ox, and made a good living in livestock management in both Texas and Iowa. In his success, he became proud and regarded himself as the quintessential “self-made man”, and didn’t realize the objective truth that all his blessings came from the hand of God.
But through a series of trials and tribulations, the self-made man was unmade. He lost everything but gained a newfound faith in Christ in his 40s, and, until his death, was one of my best friends.
The Holy Spirit uses this Vale of Tears like the elements that relentlessly work on the hard, proud exterior of the kernel of wheat that must die in order to bear much fruit (Jn. 12:24). Like John the Baptist we confess, “I muse decrease; he must increase.”
In humbling ourselves daily we are brought back to the truth of Ash Wednesday over and over and over. We are not God; in fact, we are called to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It calls to mind the wisdom of Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo: “The soul is truly humble when it recognizes that its true position in the order of nature or of grace is entirely dependent on the power, providence and mercy of God,” or as Christ said, “…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b).
Meditating on these dynamics of humility and brokenness over the years has solved one mystery for me. Let’s say you know two practicing Catholics: both are disciplined in their devotional and sacramental lives and almsgiving.
You admire both and want to imitate their obedience but you find yourself wanting to be like one more than the other. There’s something different about her.
You find out later that she has suffered through much affliction, but has always strove to turn her humiliations into humility and convert her mulberry leaves into silk. She has a palpable Christ-likeness and you remember what Christ told St. Faustina: the souls of the meek, the humble, and little children “most closely resemble My heart.”
What I’m describing is rare and is the stuff that saints are made of. The number of people you meet in this life who are like this you can count on one hand: they have, as the writer Thornton Wilder said, “been broken on the wheel of life.”
Our Lady is the greatest of all created beings because she is the most humble. May we all implore her daily to give us the graces to incarnate and practice this sublime virtue.