September 12, 2011

Humility, said St. Francis de Sales, is such a powerful virtue that it "drives away Satan and keeps the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit safe within us."

This is a startling notion. When we need to drive out Satan, don't we normally turn to overtly religious sacramentals such as holy water and the sign of the cross? How could the exercise of a virtue, even one as important as humility, get rid of the devil?

To answer that question we need to probe the nature of humility.

We all admire humility, don't we? That is, we admire humility in other people. In fact, we admire it in ourselves too. However, the moment one starts to admire humility in oneself, it is lost. Humility is a virtue that is impossible to recognize in oneself without destroying it.

So, how do you know whether you are progressing in the development of this virtue? You don't and you can't.

Moreover, not only does humility hide itself, it hides other virtues. To make a parade of one's virtues is to lack humility. Humility will not let another virtue be seen unless charity is at stake. Charity, says Francis de Sales, is "the true sun of all the virtues." It is a supernatural virtue, not a natural one; it is theological, not moral.

Charity - the love of God - is the source from which humility draws its power. So in a sense humility is also a supernatural virtue. Humility is advanced when one grows more aware of the benefits that God gives us. It also grows as we deepen our knowledge of our own offences.

Humility is the result of our standing naked and honest before God. When we only compare ourselves with other people, it is hard to be humble. While most people recognize that others far outstrip them in many areas, one can always find other people beside whom one fancies oneself to be more talented or more virtuous.

But if God is the standard for comparison, few would dare to exalt themselves to such a level. Humility becomes a possibility.


It is here that we see how humility drives out Satan. If one is truly humble, one is already in a positive relationship with God. One won't listen to the devil because it is readily apparent that he is full of lies. He lies to us about how much better we are than others, how we deserve a better seat at the banquet, how Mom always liked my brother best. Satan sows pride and division, the antitheses of humility.

When we admire our own humility, the virtue is no longer as great as it once seemed.

When we admire our own humility, the virtue is no longer as great as it once seemed.

The things that puff us up are so much garbage. "Some men become proud and overbearing because they ride a fine horse, wear a feather in their hat or are dressed in a splendid suit of clothes," writes St. Francis. "It is a mean heart that borrows honour from a horse, a bird, a feather or some passing fashion."


Few people today would become vain because of their horse or a feather. But that is the point. The vanities in which today we put so much stock will be laughed at by future generations. If we could only see the trinkets that focus our attention from an eternal perspective, we would see how laughable they are.

How do we move beyond superficial vanities and the false humility that admires itself in the mirror? We need to admit our abject state and love it. We can only see our own abjectness if we first see God's glory. When we love God's glory, we will love our humble state in relation to him.

Perhaps it sounds perverse to say we must love our abject state. But it is only abject in the eyes of the wider culture. Virtues such as patience, meekness and humility are abject to those who value wealth, celebrity and power.

The love of abjectness might best be seen in teenagers who remain true to their faith in the face of peer pressure to conform to a lower standard. No one likes being ostracized or ridiculed and teens face powerful pressures to fit in and conform. However, it takes a quiet courage to be treated as abject because you are faithful to noble principles.


In this light, Francis de Sales says it is important to defend one's good name from grievously unfair attacks. Many people respond too quickly and harshly to criticism, he says. But there can come a point beyond which attacks on one's person make it increasingly difficult to offer one's talents to society.

In general, Francis says, the humble person will accept criticism and heartily agree with his or her critics. "A truly humble man prefers that another tell him that he is a sorry fellow, that he is nothing at all and that he is worth nothing, than to say it himself."