Jan
16
2013

Humility and the Year of Faith

In the past, some theologians thought that the foundation of the spiritual life was humility. The Council of Trent came along and agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas that faith is the foundation of the Christian life, but next to it is humility. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that humility is a foundation for the virtues based upon St. James admonition that “God resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble” (4:6), but faith is the nobler foundation because it gives us access to God’s mind (STh. II-II q. 161, a. 5 ad 2).

But what is humility?

It is one of those strengths of heart that admits limitations, weaknesses and sinful inclinations!  Again St. Thomas reminds us that ignorance, concupiscence or proneness to sin, the potential for suffering physically, and mortality proceeds from the elements of corrupted human nature (SCG IV, 52). Humility undermines a kind of natural aversion from the final supernatural end of being with God forever, and indirectly even from the final natural end of happiness. If we are going to grow in faith then, we have to be on the lookout for these consequences. It’s called vigilance or being prepared to face these battles.

The humble person has to be teachable and that means listening to others wiser than himself (especially the teaching office of the Pope and proportionately to one’s bishop or parish priest). Otherwise, faith, subjectively speaking, becomes confused with error based on one’s subjective feelings or intuitions. As one grows in pride, one becomes more and more blinded to the truth of who we are and how to accomplish our salvation in the practical order of life.

A culture that is afraid of silence and receptivity is also not going to be much help in growing in humility because authentic self-knowledge and faith itself has to be received by grace more than it is grasped by one’s own personal efforts alone. Aquinas reminds us that a person’s inordinate self-esteem leads to pride because it presumes that I am superior over others. We are all ready to believe what we desire very much is true.

Delighting in one’s own excellence then leads to a certain disdain, boredom, or cavalier approach to faith and its expression in the practical area of morals (cf. STh. II-II, q. 162 a. 3 ad 1-3). Moral actions are really meant to be faith in action.

If I think I know more about what kind of life will get me to heaven, I will eventually be sadly deceived. Further, if I no longer wish to rely on the Church’s teaching and think I am saved, I will lose the sense that final perseverance is a gift just as my baptism was a gift from God who chose me as a friend.

Endless texting or chatting on one’s cell phone, spending hours before the television, or wasting time on endless trivial updates on one’s Twitter or Facebook accounts does not forebode well for growing in faith or humility because noise or chatter casts out deep reflection about one’s faith and one’s inner self as God sees us.

The more one loves the truth of one’s faith, the more this love leads to a desire to understand it, although imperfectly. To love the truth of faith means we want to please God in all of our thoughts, words and actions in the first place.

Often, the desire for creature comforts associated with noise drowns out the delight of faith and one grows bored with this treasure the more one thinks of this life. It tends to blot out of one’s memory the extraordinary delights of the next life.

Some people think that heaven means having fun and when you get bored, you go to a theater in the sky, and look at God for a while. While this is ludicrous, some think they also know more than what the pope or the faith teaches about this life. So instead of seeing the joys of this life subordinate to God’s plan, they reverse everything and believe that God should subordinate himself to their wants, needs and delights.

It takes a great deal of faith to believe that the Lord Jesus is presence in the Blessed Sacrament but in a sense it is much easier than believing he is present in the sacrament of penance when the priest absolves one from sin. From a certain point of view, it takes more humility to go to confession, wait in line, and confess one’s sins before God truthfully to another sinner the priest and walking in the communion line at Mass. Going to Holy Communion says to the congregation:  “I am in the state of sanctifying grace.” Whereas waiting in line to go to confession says “I am a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness.”

Thomas challenges us that aiming at great things like opening up a new business by primarily confiding in one’s own expertise is contrary to humility. However, relying on God’s help in the process is not. Aiming for holiness is the vocation of all Catholics, but it’s how you do it that measures failure or success in the perfection of divine love and the virtues. I like what Thomas says about the example of Our Lord:

The reason why Christ chiefly proposed humility to us, was because it especially removes the obstacle to man’s spiritual welfare consisting in man’s aiming at heavenly and spiritual things in which he is hindered by striving to become great in earthly things.  Hence our Lord in order to remove an obstacle to our spiritual welfare showed by giving an example of humility, that outward exaltation is to be despised (STh. II-II, q. 161, a. 5 ad 4).

The Year of Faith must walk hand in hand with a year of growing in humility or the subjection of one’s mind to the gifts of light coming from faith.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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