Some of us have probably been almost shocked at times by statements we read in certain spiritual books. They cause in us a certain revulsion of feeling; and yet we are afraid to go against them, or even to appear to contradict them, for they come to us clothed with a sort of religious character or halo of sanctity.
They come to us with a halo of sanctity
We are afraid to question what good and holy and learned men have written, even when we find that other good, holy and learned men have held different and opposite views. And especially are we prone to entertain this kind of fear when the subjects treated are themselves of a severe and rigorous nature, such as make the practice of religion arduous and repellent. It may be that in such cases it is safer to adopt the strict view, however much more comforting it may be to allow ourselves to be ruled according to the easier teachings of an opposite school of spirituality.
Humility versus confidence/trust
We may take as an example the way in which spiritual writers differ as to the manner in which we should consider ourselves.
“Everything that is bad and sinful is mine own…”
“Everything that is bad and sinful” (says St Augustine) “is mine own: anything that is good or of any worth is the gift of God.” An unimpeachable statement, taken as a whole; but if we develop singly the two parts of which it consists, it leads on the one hand to humility and on the other to confidence or trust. These are, as it were, the two poles of the spiritual life, positive and negative, between which springs the spark of divine love.
“… Anything that is good or of any worth is the gift of God”
Where harm has been done is, that in many cases it is the humility or negative pole to which attention has been mainly given, whereas the confidence or positive pole has been but lightly touched upon, if at all.
St Augustine never tired of insisting on the miseries of human nature
Hostile critics indeed have often blamed Christianity for stressing far too much the sense of guilt and helplessness, amounting almost to impotence, which some ascetics seem to think should animate men and abide with them.
And to tell the truth, many pious writers have laid themselves open to this censure, founding themselves upon St Augustine, who, holy and resplendent genius he undoubtedly was, yet, it must be confessed, was responsible for many of the discouraging views which have made their way and obtained currency in the Church.
The Saint is never tired of insisting on the miseries of human nature, and expressing contempt, disgust and even hatred for himself and the entire world. In his Soliloquies – if we may assume that he wrote them – he contrasts God and himself:
“Thou art in heaven, I on this earth. Thou loveth what is high and exalted, I what is lowest of the low. Thou art good, I am wicked. Thou art holy, I am all that is wretched. Thou art the light and I am blind. Thou art life and I am dead.” And the conclusion of this meditation is: “Woe is me. I am a putrefying corpse, the food of worms, a vessel of filth, aliment of the fire.” And again: “What am I then? A dark abyss, a patch of misery, a son of wrath, a vessel of ignominy, conceived in uncleanness, living in wretchedness, dying in utter want. What then am I? A dunghill, a sink of iniquity, a vessel the contents of which are rottenness, filth and disgusting foulness!”
The ascetical writers of the sixteenth century
No doubt such expressions can be defended from one point of view, but they certainly lend themselves to just criticism. Some of the ascetical writers of the sixteenth century have gone a great deal further in their endeavour to depreciate man, both in his body and his soul.
St John of Avila would have us consider him “as a dungheap covered with snow, something that only causes disgust and nausea, if you think of it”. Louis of Granada takes up the figure of the dunghill covered with snow and describes minutely the process of decay that goes on in a putrefying corpse. And according to him, the soul is an ” object of contemplation still more hideous: his intellect is shallow, its will wellnigh powerless: its desires, its efforts are mainly directed to things that are revolting; its true element – that in which it bestirs itself with the greatest complacency – is uncleanness.”
And he goes on to tell us that “humility demands that man should look upon himself as the most miserable creature in the whole world, undeserving of the bread that nourishes him, of the air that he breathes, of the earth that supports him, and that he should consider himself as nothing better than a frightful corpse full of worms, the stench of which he himself cannot bear, from the sight of which he must turn away his look.” And so they seem to vie each other in piling on the agony.
“What God has created is not for us to brand as unclean” (St Thomas Aquinas)
And all this, and much more, in the name of religion. It is a relief to turn back in the centuries to St Thomas Aquinas who, commenting on that text of the Acts (11:9), “That which God has cleansed, do not thou call common,” says: “So what God has created is not for us to brand as unclean.”
Indeed he waxes indignant at those who refuse to recognise in themselves the good which they have received from God. “That is not true humility”, he rightly says. “It is ingratitude.” And he applies to them the words of the Psalmist:
“Man when he was in honour did not understand. He is therefore compared to senseless beasts and is become like to them” (Ps 68:30).
Christian hope, joy, gladness, thankfulness and confidence
Even were it all true it is hard to see what good can be gained by such wholesale-depreciation. But is it true? That is a question which is very pertinent and the answer to which it very much imports us to know. Is there not another side to the matter? Is the Church committed to that morbid and depressing view of the relation between God and His poor creature, the work of His hands?
In answer, we cannot do better than refer to the numerous writers, teachers and preachers, some of them saints, among them Doctors of the Church, who not only have not adopted that excessive self-contempt and humiliation, common among the Spanish mystics of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th, but have striven consistently to foster in the Christian mind hope, joy, gladness, thankfulness, confidence – all those virtues which have for object to cheer and encourage, never to induce sadness or melancholy.
St Teresa of Avila
Take for a first instance the great St Teresa of Avila, who lived at the time and in the midst of those same Spanish mystics. She fully recognised the danger of the low spirits which inevitably result from dwelling overmuch on the miseries of the human subject.
Dwelling on human misery is not the same as humility
“It leads,” she says, “to such reasoning as the following. ‘How can I undertake to do such and such a work? Is it not sheer pride, can it be right for such a miserable creature as I am to aim at anything so sublime as interior pride?'”
Teresa had experienced all those temptations and therefore it was from knowledge that she could say: “Such souls remain for ever in the contemplation of their own misery, they never come out of it, and they deem that true humility. In reality” (she goes on) “it is the evil spirit who turns all this introspection to their own detriment. He puts into them a false conception of humility, in order that they may make no progress. He causes them to esteem it pride if they entertain lofty ideas, or would imitate the saints. Oh, my daughter,” she exclaims, “what amount of harm has not the devil done to numberless souls by filling them with such thoughts?”
St Francis de Sales
As we might expect, St Francis de Sales will have nothing to do with that systematic devaluation and besmirching of man’s body, and still more of man’s soul. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, which is meant for all sorts and conditions of men, the titles of his chapters are something like this: “Meditate on the excellent character of thy soul”; “On the vast stretch of its intellect, which can embrace the visible universe, the Angelic world, and God Himself”; “On thy most noble power of willing”; “On thy heart made for love.”
“Meditate on the excellent character of thy soul”
“O, thou beautiful soul of mine,” he exclaims in a transport of admiration. This is an echo of St Ambrose who, in a well-known passage, cries out: “O glorious soul, thou art the image of God.” No attempt in all this to disparage or deny our human nature. It is as if we were introduced into another world, as if we were breathing another and purer atmosphere.
“O glorious soul, thou art the image of God.” (St Ambrose)
Now, it might be argued that those gloomy writers, quoted first, were considering man in the hideous condition to which he is reduced by sin, whereas the other writers are contemplating him clothed with the garment of sanctifying grace.
Man in the hideous condition to which he is reduced by sin versus man clothed with the garment of sanctifying grace
Neither class, however, in treating the subject seems to avert to the distinction, and indeed we must acknowledge that even in his sinful state the soul of man and his body, too, possess elements of beauty and greatness. When it is said that man is a dunghill, a vessel of filth, that he is nothingness itself, all these are figures of speech. Of course even the sinner is something, his soul is a spirit and immortal, he possess wonderful faculties, he is the recipient of the innumerable gifts of God.
He who even in his fallen state is thus favoured by his Creator cannot in justice be the object of abuse on his own part or on that of his fellow men.
St Francis de Sales, therefore, at the outset dissociates himself from those authors who make humility the basis of all spirituality, instead of founding humility itself on the love of God, and who insist upon and exaggerate the miseries of our human nature. The Saint sees very clearly, as did St Teresa, that in true logic such humility, if acted upon, would mean the end of all effort and all enterprise, in our own private life as well as in our works ad extra.
Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (Js 1:17)
Starting accordingly from the principle that the love of God is the end for which man was created, it is not the vileness of our nature that he would have us begin to consider but the greatness and beauty of our being and the multiplicity of God’s gifts to us in the temporal as well as in the spiritual order.
Far from being blameworthy, as some authors would seem to imply, this recognition of all that is good in us is virtuous and pleasing to the Almighty. It would be blameworthy only if we came to ascribe all these good qualities to ourselves and refused to acknowledge that, as St James says, “every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Ja 1:17).
The contemplation of God’s graces
St Thomas teaches that the contemplation of God’s graces is the best of all means to increase and kindle in our hearts the love of our Maker.
St Francis goes further still and would have us concentrate our attention on those gifts that are peculiar to ourselves, on the ground that men prize what is bestowed on them individually more than what they share in common with others. And if certain spiritual writers point here to the danger of vanity and self I satisfaction, since man should, according to St Bernard, dwell upon his defects and not upon his merits, our holy Doctor brushes aside their animadversions very lightly and is not afraid to say:
“They most certainly are mistaken, for we need entertain no fear that the recognition of what are God’s gifts to us will ever puff us up and lead to selfglorification, so long as we keep steadily in view the great truth that whatever good there is in us proceeds not from ourselves but from above.”
Every advance in the love of our Creator increases in us the virtue of humility
We have thus briefly examined two different aspects of the spiritual life, the one proceeds from the depths of humiliation and rises by degrees to the sublimest heights of divine love; the other starts at once from the love of God, as the alpha and the omega of all spirituality, leading directly through the contemplation of His goodness and liberality to the most profound humility. For true humility does not consist in making ourselves out to be worms of earth, but in the acknowledgement that everything we have, everything we accomplish, is from God and not from ourselves.
Thus every advance in the love of our Creator increases in us the virtue of humility, for nothing can make us realise more deeply the unworthiness of even the smallest sin than the consciousness of the innumerable benefits and graces we have received at God’s hands.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London 1949