May God bless you during this Lent and grant that you may receive the ashes upon your forehead at the beginning of this holy season with such fitting dispositions as to preserve constantly that holy humility in your heart. He to whom God gives light to understand and to sorrow for the state he was in while he lived apart from his Creator is delivered from the total blindness of pride and is made capable of receiving all fitting spiritual graces.
The Holy Scriptures say: “Pride is the beginning of all sin; he that holdeth it shall be filled with maledictions”; that is to say, “vices.” For as a king is rarely seen alone, so, many other sins usually accompany pride, and neither does humility keep solitary state; for, as St. James tells us: “God giveth grace to the humble,” and grace is the mother of all the virtues.
Pride seeks after honors and is grieved when it is despised; humility is averse to being treated well and rejoices in contempt, which it knows that it deserves, and its own uprightness renders it desirous that justice should be done. Pride finds it insupportable to submit to others, whether to God or to a mortal creature, but humility gives way and bows down, so that it is able to pass through the “narrow gate” of obeying the will of God and man.
Humility of the Ashes
Great are the blessings that come to us with the ashes of humility; let no man be without it, lest he be without God also, for, as St. Augustine exclaims: “Behold how high Thou art, O Lord, and yet dost dwell with the lowly of heart!” The prophet also says: “To whom shall I have respect but to him that is poor and little, and that trembleth at my words?”
Humility, which makes a man think basely of himself, is yet no base thing; nor is it a fruit that springs from this earth, but grows in Heaven. God bestows it on those who search deeply in the mire of their own souls, and diligently turn over in their minds the remembrance of their sins and frailties, for it is among such needs and miseries that this precious jewel is usually discovered. Our frequent errors have given us so many transgressions to examine into and to repent of, that, unless he willfully turn away his eyes from himself, there is no man who will not see ample reasons not only to be humbled, but to be confounded, at his own imperfections.
Let each one think how little he has mortified his passions, and how he resists the reign of God’s love within him, and he will see that he does not love God with all his soul. Our Lord commands us to love Him with all our strength, and indeed we ought to beg His pardon for our weakness in this respect; our energies are given to our own interests, and the concupiscence that dwells within us makes us fail to serve God diligently, and love Him fervently.
Grow in Love
St. Augustine says that, as charity grows, concupiscence diminishes, and that no evil desires can exist with perfect charity. By the word desires, he means the immoderate self-love we all bear toward ourselves. Now, as, with the exception of Jesus Christ our Lord, and His most holy Mother, no member of the race of Adam has ever been altogether without some degree of this inordinate self-love.
If selfishness has killed the love of God, then we are in a state of mortal sin; while if the love of God lives and reigns in our souls, making them resolute not to offend Him mortally, they are in a state of grace. If, however, self and creatures usurp an undue place in our affections, our charity is not perfect. Our works are imperfect if this virtue is defective, since it is that which gives them life.
When we do not love God as we should, we are wanting also in the love of our neighbors, for we neither feel compassion for the sorrow nor joy at the happiness of those who are very near and dear to God, and who were made His adopted children in Baptism. We do not behave toward them with due charity, because we are imperfect in our love for Him who said: “As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”
All We Have is From God
All things that we possess proceed from God. If anyone thinks he can so much as say “the Lord Jesus!” of his own power, he puts himself in God’s place, for he attributes to himself what his Creator alone can do. God gives Himself to us on the condition that we confess the truth, that in Him and from Him, and not from ourselves, comes all that we have.
The greater the good we possess, the deeper is our debt toward the Almighty, and the stronger reason have we to blame ourselves for not corresponding to such signal mercies by more generous service, and to greater graces with a warmer gratitude. He who is taught by divine truth attributes nought to himself save his sins and his own nothingness.
If all that God gave us at our creation, and which by His power He daily sustains, were withdrawn from us, there would remain only nothingness and we should return to the nothingness from which we were formed. And if God took from us the grace which He bestows on us for the sake of Jesus Christ, what would the most holy among us be, but what Peter was when he denied our Lord, or Paul when he persecuted his Redeemer? We know but too well what we were before God touched our souls, and taking from us our old hearts gave us new ones in their stead.
Justification is nothing but the resurrection of a soul that was dead in sin, and henceforth exists by the life that God infuses into it through the death of His blessed Son. It would be madness if the body attributed its animation and power of motion to itself and not to the spirit which dwells in it and quickens it; and the soul is as blind which thinks that its good works come from its own abilities, and not from the supernatural life divinely bestowed on it.
You see, then, my friend, that your defects are all that you can attribute to yourself, for you possess nothing else of your own. Remember how little you profit by the inspirations and promptings you receive from God, and how often, when He urges you again and again to do something for Him, you forget His wish almost at once and do not carry it out. Surely His every word should remain imprinted in your memory for life, without need for Him to repeat it. Think how often your faulty heart lets the precious grace that our Lord pours into it become wasted, instead of carefully preserving it.
The Sweetness of Mercy
Take heed to yourself, then, since our Lord so urgently demands it of you; give glory to God for what is praiseworthy, but impute to yourself all that deserves blame and dishonor. Place all your hopes of perseverance in the right way in our Lord, who did not set you in it with the intention of deserting you halfway, but seeks to lead you by it into the company of His spouses in Paradise. There He will heap honors upon you, so do not seek for honors here. With a celestial feast in prospect, you should not satiate yourself with the filth of this world: nothing can please the palate that has once tasted of that heavenly banquet.
Turn away from all that you will so soon be forced to leave, and set not your heart on anything so transitory. You would be bearing little enough for God, if you alone had to endure all possible sufferings.
Contemplate the pains Christ bore for your sake, and you will deem all that you do or may suffer for Him unworthy of a second thought. God should be so precious to you that nothing He costs you should seem worth considering; even if you purchased Him with your life, so small a price should count as nothing. In Heaven you will realize what an advantageous exchange you made and how foolish those poor wretches were who set their hearts on the transitory good, and gave themselves up to pleasure, oblivious of God’s promises. What fervent thanks you will render to Divine Providence, for having enlightened you when you were deceived as they are, and drawn your thoughts above this earth.
Then, after this exile is ended, He will set you in the land of the living, in the clear fruition of the Beatific Vision. What your joy will be God alone can tell, as He alone is able and willing to bestow it. This will He do, not for your own merits but because “He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever,” and to him be glory and praise for all, and from all, and in all, forever and ever. Amen.
This article is adapted from a letter by St. John of Avila, collected in Finding Confidence in Times of Trial: Letters of St John of Avila. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.