Humility: The First of the Lively Virtues

When Thomas Aquinas asked how it was that Satan believed, in his pride, that he could be like God, he denied that even the devil could be so blind as actually to believe that he could be God. For Satan understood by natural knowledge that that was impossible.

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning? how art thou fallen to the earth, that didst wound the nations?

And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north.

I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.
But yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit. (Is. 14:12-15)

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When Thomas Aquinas asked how it was that Satan believed, in his pride, that he could be like God, he denied that even the devil could be so blind as actually to believe that he could be God.  For Satan understood by natural knowledge that that was impossible.  He could not create heaven and earth from nothing, as he well knew.  Besides, says Thomas, no creature desires its own demise, which must occur if it is to pass in essence from one grade of being to a higher grade.  Rather, Satan desired to be like God “because he desired, as the ultimate goal of beatitude, that which he could attain by the power of his own nature, turning his desire away from that beatitude beyond nature which is bestowed by the free gift of God” (S. T. I.63.4).  And this understanding of Satan’s sin, Thomas adds, is in accord with the opinion of Anselm, who said that Satan “desired what he would have attained if he had but stood.”

We see here why pride is the fundamental evil.  It arises from a lie about who God is, and what we are.  We desire a likeness to God that we ourselves, by our own powers, can secure; but that is to divorce God from love, and to reject His gifts of love.  We cannot become like the giver of all good things by means of ingratitude.  We cannot become like the God of love by assuming that we, as creatures, do not need that love.  Bonum diffusivum sui: the good, by nature, pours itself out, spreads itself abroad, gives freely of its being.  We cannot become good, then, by standing aloof, by saying, “I am alone and sufficient to myself,” for God Himself, a community of Persons, sent forth His Spirit upon the waters, and made the world about us.

We want the gift, but we do not want it as given.  Dante illustrates the contradiction in three lines of stunning compression and power.  We are on the lowest terrace of Purgatory, where the vice of pride is punished, and we behold at our feet, like relief sculptures upon tombs set in a marble floor, examples of the fall of the proud.  The first, and paradigmatic, is that of Satan:

Mark, on this side, the one whom the Most High
created as the noblest of His creatures —
and see him fall like lightning from the sky.  (Purg. 12.25-27)

Satan was the noblest of God’s creatures; that is to say, he was a created being, and the glory of his being was God’s gift to him.  To reject that gift is to “fall like lightning,” and here we should recall the moment when our Lord Himself, in joyful praise, echoed that verse from Isaiah.  He had sent forth the seventy two disciples, granting them authority to teach and to heal, and they returned to Him and cried out in astonishment, “Lord, the devils also are subject to us in thy name!”  To which Jesus replied, “I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven” (Lk. 10:17-18).  Then He advised them to rejoice not in the exercise of that power, but in gratitude, for their names were written in heaven.  And Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Ghost, and said: I confess to thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and the prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones” (Lk. 10:21).  Of course:  “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Pride makes a great show of strutting upon the face of the earth, glorying in its palaces and its power, but beneath all the blare and the garish pomp there lies, as it were, a shrunken thing, a cringing little emperor, afraid of the dark – afraid of the vast waters of love.  By contrast, humility is the most realistic of virtues.  I am a creature; well then, I acknowledge that I am a creature.  I cannot attain blessedness on my own; cannot, on my own, even make this world into a decent wayside station, let alone heaven.  Well then, I acknowledge what history and my own eyes will teach me.  I am a sinner; I survey the moonscape of my life and see it pitted with self-regard, stupidity, and spite.  Well then, I bend the neck and confess the sins.  In humility, literally, we bow down to the humus or the soil beneath us, and cry out, with the repentant psalmist, “My soul cleaves to the dust” (Ps. 118:25).  It is not that we make ourselves out to be less than what we are, but that we try for a change to stop making ourselves out to be more than what we are.  We try to look into the darkness of sin, and the more terrifying darkness of love.

But humility is more, far more, than a curative for pride.  It is itself a mighty power – and here do the pagans ancient and modern stumble and fall.  “Take up my yoke upon you,” says Jesus, “and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29).  The Lord Himself is humble, not despite His being one with the Father, but because He is one with the Father, for “the Son cannot do any thing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing” (Jn. 5:19).  The lightning that scorches the earth is as a thing frozen in perpetual stasis as compared with the swiftness of the grace of God that comes down to us from on high.  Then why turn to that glint of a firefly, the lightning, when we can dwell in the brightness of Him who said, “Let there be light”?  Jesus wants us to be humble so that we will be as He is, seeing the love of the Father and bringing it to light by our deeds.  The angels can fly, says the witty Chesterton, because they take themselves lightly.  We are to take ourselves lightly too, like the little children that thronged about the Lord, “for the kingdom of heaven is for such” (Mt. 19:14).

With that grace comes true power, so that humility expands the heart, opening it up in brave freedom to the might of God, so that Saint Paul can say, not boasting, “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).  And who is this giver of strength but that Lord to whom Paul has just sung the great hymn, who “humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8)?  What, then, can humility not attain?  The Bride of Christ is “bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array” (Sg. 6:9), because she is obedient to Him in all things.  The Church applies that verse also to describe the Virgin Mary – die Jungfrau Maria, as the happy German phrase puts it, the “young maiden Mary.”  She whose prayers we believe are most effectual was no more than a maiden in a forgettable village called Nazareth.

Mary was not like Michal, the daughter of King Saul and wife of David.  When Michal saw David, whom Dante calls l’umile salmista, “the humble psalmist” (Purg. 10.64), dancing and reveling naked before the Ark of the Covenant, she “despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6:16), calling him a buffoon to expose himself so before the “handmaids of his servants” (6:20).  But David defied her, saying, “I will be little in my own eyes” (6:22), and therefore, says the sacred author, Michal the vainglorious daughter of Saul “had no child to the day of her death” (6:23).

Dante places the pride – and barrenness – of Michal beside the humility and the fruitfulness of Mary.  What can humility do?  It flings wide the portals of the heart, because once, in that little Nazareth, it flung wide the portals of heaven itself:

The angel who came down
with the decree that brought to earth the peace
for which men wept so many years, which freed
The gates of Heaven long prohibited,
to us appeared so true, engraven there
in sweet and courteous pose, he did not seem
A silent form.  You’d swear you heard him say
“Hail!” – for the one who opened Heaven’s high love
was there in image, she who turned the key,
And in her pose was stamped the spoken word,
exactly as a seal in molten wax:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”  (Purg. 10.34-45)




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