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The Priest's Way To God

IT is essential that anyone who wishes to succeed in the spiritual life should have a proper appreciation of the importance of humility. Very often humility is regarded as one of a number of virtues which would be desirable ornaments for one’s soul but not absolutely essential. Sometimes humility is misunderstood and is regarded as demanding that a man deny or at least decry his own abilities and gifts, even to the extent of denying all that God has wrought in his soul. Both views are mistaken; for humility is an essential virtue which is so powerful that where it is present all else is added unto it, so that we may truly call it the one thing necessary; and it is based fundamentally on truth, the truth of what we are, of what God is and of what he has done for us. She who excelled all other human creatures in humility could exult in the knowledge that God had done great things for her. So important is this virtue, and so sufficent, that we feel bound to discuss it at some length despite the risk of repeating what we have already written and of wearying our readers with fundamental considerations.

Lest someone, knowing of the primacy of charity in the spiritual order and of the capital place given to it by St. Paul, should feel that we are exaggerating the importance of humility, let us quote St. Augustine on the subject. He writes: ‘Ipsa est perfectio nostra, humilitas,’ and again: ‘Universa disciplina christiana docet humilitatem qua et acquirat et custodiat charitatem,’ ‘Nihil excelsius via charitatis et non in illa ambulant nisi humiles.’

In Ps. 130, 14; De Virg. 31; In Ps. 141, 7

It is precisely because charity is of primary importance that humility is so essential; for charity is the gift of God, and God will give his grace only to the humble. By the very law of his being he must resist the proud; for the proud assume to themselves the glory that belongs to God, and God cannot give his glory to another. What then is humility?

We can hardly find a better answer than that given by Dom Belorgey in his book, L’humilité Bénédictine, ‘Humility,’ he writes, ‘is the truth about our relations with God, recognized by our intelligence, accepted by our will and realized in our whole life.’ (If this were to be amended in any way, we would insert the adverb ‘lovingly’ before each verb). This concept of humility is of special importance and significance for the priest. The priest’s principal duty is to offer sacrifice to God; to acknowledge by a most sacred and solemn rite our relations with God and to profess publicly his complete acceptance of all that those relations entail. Each time a priest celebrates Mass, he makes public profession of these sentiments and associates himself with the dispositions which animated our Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrifice on Calvary. Obviously, humility, as we have just described it, is in perfect harmony with these dispositions and, as we shall see, sums them all up. Humility, then, is the fulfilment of that fundamental obligation of worship which the first of God’s commandments lays upon us, a fulfilment which has an intrinsic value of its own in God’s sight quite apart from any fruit or effects which it may produce elsewhere. We are inclined to forget that acts of the virtue of religion have a value of their own even though they have no apparent usefulness in our ministry. Our primary duty is the direct service of God; to love and serve our fellow men is only a secondary duty and a derivation of the first. Humility, then, must not be evaluated by its usefulness, even though in practice it can be the source of a most fruitful ministry. Its great value is that it puts us in our proper place in relation to God, and determines correctly our attitude to him. What is this attitude?

St. Thomas answers the question in the Summa:

I-IIae, q. 102, art. 3

‘Per sacrificia repraesentabatur ordinatio mentis in Deo. Ad rectam autem ordinationem mentis in Deum pertinet quod omnia quae homo habet recognoscat a Deo tamquam a primo principio, et ordinet in Deum tanquam in ultimum finem.’ There we have it. All that we have is from God and must be ordained to God. And the Saint hammers it out in various places. God is our first beginning, the first principle of all we do, our supreme good and final end, by whom alone we can be made happy. This is dry doctrine, wearyingly familiar and dull. But look at its implications. It means that, having submitted ourselves to God and recognized him as the power behind all that we do, we then must admit that there is nothing he wills us to do that is outside that power. And having recognized him as our last end, we immediately see that we are called to intimate union with him, and that all his power is at our disposal to effect that union. Why,—to use a modern phrase, more expressive than elegant—it ‘stands out a mile’ in the Mass. Immediately after we offer sacrifice God gives us the Body and Blood of his Son as the food of our souls in order that we may be one with him. St. John Chrysostom condenses it into a marvellous phrase: ‘ut unum quid simus.’ That is why we need never be afraid of humility or reluctant to admit our lowliness in God’s sight. Our very poverty of spirit is our title to the Kingdom of heaven. The Scripture tells us that God exalts the humble. One is almost tempted to say that humility itself exalts them!

Perhaps the close connection between humility and confidence may become apparent in this view of things. Recognition of our absolute dependence on God, so far from depressing us and crushing us, should, on the contrary, make us optimistic and courageous. For if God be with us what does it matter who is against us? If God is our strength (and he has said so himself) what can prevent our attaining all that he wills for us? And if God is our last end, is not union with him the supreme purpose of his will? It is significant that when our Lord was instituting the sacrifice of the Mass, he himself sounded and stressed this note of union. ‘That they may all be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us . . . that they may be one, as we also are one. I in them, and thou in me: that they may be made perfect in one . . . that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them.’

Cf. John XVII, 21, 23, 26

This insistence on divine union becomes all the more significant when we recall the words spoken earlier in this discourse

XV, 5

: ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ It is precisely because we can do nothing of ourselves that we must abide in the Vine and put all our hopes in him who calls us to such intimate union.

Humility is but the recognition and willing acceptance of this fact. It means of course a life of ever-increasing dependence on God, but it also means a life of ever-increasing strength, confidence and joy. It means an entirely new appreciation of the great truth that all things work together for good to them that love God, and a joyous acceptance of our vocation to glory in our infirmities.

As a monk living by the rule of St. Benedict, I am rather loath to cite monastic principles of St. Benedict’s teaching in support of this thesis, lest I seem to be led by personal preference and piety to apply to the secular clergy something which is intended only for the monastic life. Despite that danger, I think it will be useful to discuss St. Benedict’s teaching on the point. St. Benedict lived in the fifth century when the doctrine of the apostolic age was still fresh in the Church and when it had not yet been adapted or developed to suit special needs and cases. In fact St. Benedict was legislating for men who wished to be perfect Christians in the shelter of the cloister. He proposes very little spiritual teaching except on humility. In his discussion of the twelve degrees of the ladder of humility he reveals his view of that virtue. He bases humility on the practice of the presence of God. ‘The first degree of humility is always to have the fear of God before our eyes, never forgetting but always remembering what he has commanded.’ He develops his teaching to include in this degree constant meditation on the abyss into which those fall who despise God, and ‘on the eternal life prepared for those who fear him.’ This leads to a continual guard against sins and vices, which is achieved by reflecting that the eyes of God are ever upon us, that all our actions, and even our desires, lie open to his view. The second degree of humility is ‘that a person love not his own will, nor seek the gratification of his own desires, but shape all his actions according to those words of our Lord : I came not to do my own will but the will of him that sent me.’ These two degrees of humility cover the conversion of a man from a life of sin (or perhaps the avoidance of sin from the beginning) and a subsequent advance to realize the importance of God’s will. The passing of these two degrees may be regarded as the preliminary steps which have led us into the priesthood or into religion. The next degree is worded in a way suitable to the religious—life, but it only adapts to it a principle which applies also to the life of a priest. ‘The third degree of humility is for a monk to submit himself with all obedience to his superior for the love of God after the example of Jesus Christ of whom the Apostle saith: “He humbled himself becoming obedient unto death.”’ There is an important advance here, for it accepts the principle that God’s will is shown to us by men, in whose divine authority we must believe and whom we should obey for love. The role of faith and charity is stressed and the example of our Lord takes a more important place. But the next degree is the testing-place of the spiritual life to which we have referred before, and which is the stumbling stone where many come to grief and failure in their quest for God. ‘The fourth degree of humility is to keep patience in the exercise of obedience, and not to lose it or depart from it, either because of the difficulty of the thing commanded or the injuries to which one may be subjected, agreeably to what is said in scripture: “He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved,”

Matt. XXIV, 13

and again: “Let thy heart take courage and wait thou for the Lord.”

Ps. XXVI, 14

This is where most of us fail to carry out the sacrifice we make of ourselves at Mass. St. Benedict indicates one source of our failure when he quotes scripture to justify our subjection to human authority with all its limitations and mistakes: ‘Thou hast set men over our heads.’

Ps. LXV, 12

When we notice the human element in the men who rule us, or in the neighbours who try us, or in the mistakes and misfortunes that cause us so much trouble, we cease to take a supernatural view of things, we set aside our faith and we lose our patience and submission. This is a fatal error. St. Benedict exhorts us in the words of the scripture: ‘Take courage and wait thou for the Lord.’

Ps. XXVI, 14

This is most important, because it is a reminder that God himself will come to aid us if we but wait for him as he has so often asked us to do. The saint goes on to develop his doctrine in terms that are very applicable to priests who, sharing our Lord’s priesthood, should also be prepared to share his sufferings and patience as a Victim. He writes: ‘The scripture furthermore teaches us that the faithful servant ought to suffer all things, however repugnant, for the love of his Lord, saying in the person of those who thus suffer: “For we suffer death all the day long: we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. .”

Ps. XLIII, 22

‘ And he expects us to rejoice and to say: ‘But in all these things we overcome because of him that hath loved us.’

Rom. VIII, 37

Let no reader say that this is for monks but not for secular priests. Are not priests the chosen friends of our Lord? Are they not chosen to be fellow victims with him just as they are priests with him? Are they not called to abide in the Vine that they may bear fruit? Are they not to be ‘purged’ that they may bring forth more fruit? To surmount this degree of humility, we priests may have to make radical adjustments in our outlook on our vocation and on our work. The time comes sooner or later when obstacles permitted by Providence, and even seeming to come from the hand of superiors, may interfere with the work which we regard as our special vocation. A new appointment, a change of duty, a removal of some help or some such thing, can frustrate all our hopes and ambitions. And we fondly imagine that we are being prevented from doing God’s work—that, in fact, we are being prevented from doing God’s will by God’s will itself! For everything that happens, happens to us according to his will. We forget that God’s plan is of a piece. We forget that God has warned us that we are to be purged. We fail to realize that we are being invited to go up higher at the banquet of his love. We forget that, like our Master, it behoves us to suffer these things and so enter into our glory.

Mention has just been made of some of the events which may interfere with our patient submission to God’s providence. Those mentioned are of course quite minor ones. St. Benedict’s principle applies to a much wider field. It would cover such trials as those of the purifying ‘nights’ of which St. John of the Cross speaks, and would even extend to such sufferings as those of concentration camps which seem to be part of the sacerdotal vocation of so many of today’s priests. The essential point underlying his doctrine is that as we cease to make ourselves the centre of our own lives and realize the completeness of God’s claim on our devotion to him, we become more and more generous in our abandonment to his will, and more and more closely resemble our model and Master, Jesus Christ.

Pride is that disposition of mind and heart which makes self the principle of all our own excellence. We tend to regard our excellence as of our own making or meriting; we regard holiness and perfection as due to us; and we tend to make our own excellence our final end and purpose. Humility, on the contrary, although it does not deny the excellence of what God has done and will yet do for us, refers everything to God. This is its connection with sacrifice, for in the offering of sacrifices, according to St. Thomas, man avows that God is the first principle of the creation of all things, and the last end to which all must be related.

II-IIae, q. 102, art. 3

Humility establishes us perfectly in these dispositions, which should animate our daily celebration of the Mass.

Humility and confidence are inseparable. Very often we have no confidence because we are not humble. But sometimes we fail to become humble because we have not enough confidence. We do not realize that God is more anxious about, and more capable of, making us happy and holy than we ourselves are. We hang on to ourselves as a drowning man clutches at a straw, because we cannot or will not trust the ocean of God’s mercy to support us. We are, in fact, like the apostles, ‘men of little faith.’ And the very same fear prevents us from being generous in our sacrifice. We forget the teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas: ‘True sacrifice is every work that is done in order that we may cleave to God in a holy union, who is the final good by which alone we can be made truly happy.’ If we but knew the gift of God, we would fly from the poverty of our own apparent riches and cleave to the apparent emptiness of the all-satisfying God.

St. Benedict completes the ladder of interior humility in the next three degrees. The fifth degree refers to our need of revealing our interior life to a competent guide who can represent God, for the Saint says: ‘To this are we exhorted by the scripture in these words: “Commit thy way to the Lord, and trust in him.”

Ps. XXXVI, 5

‘ In doing so we obtain pardon, we obtain light, and we obtain strength. The sixth degree asks us to be content with the poverty and abjection that may fall to our lot, whether interior or exterior, looking upon ourselves as unworthy servants, saying: ‘I have been brought to nothing, and I knew it not: I am become as a beast of burden before thee, and I am always with thee.’

Ps. LXXII, 22–23

The seventh degree brings us to the height of interior humility where we sincerely speak and think of ourselves as the lowest of all—‘a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.’ This appreciation of and joy in our own nothingness would seem to mean infused grace and light; it must be absolutely sincere, proceeding from an inmost conviction without the slightest trace of affectation.

The next five degrees are merely the external expression of our interior dispositions, whereby we avoid singularity and observe modesty in our speech and bearing, not being self-assertive, tending rather to be silent than to speak. When the height of this ladder is reached, St. Benedict promises us that we shall then ‘attain to that perfect love of God which casteth out fear, whereby all that we dreaded so much at the outset, we shall begin to do without any labour—naturally, as it were, and by habit, not now through the fear of hell, but for the love of Christ, and because of the delight that attends the practice of virtue.’

To imagine that, however suitable this may be for monks, it seems quite outside the vocation and scope of the secular clergy would be a complete error. For the priest, by his office as priest, is called to the closest possible union with God, which means that he is called to climb this ladder of humility, there being no other way that leads to God.

In this chapter we have not been able to discuss the practice of humility in detail; but the broad outline has an importance of its own. And its importance increases in the case of secular priests. To the first secular priests our Lord himself said: ‘Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Matt. XVIII, 3

And God has since sent us, in the person of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a living model of humility to recall us to the true notion of sanctity and perfection. The allocution of Pope Benedict XV on the occasion of her beatification is really a commentary on the text which we have just quoted. The Holy Father insisted that her way of spiritual childhood was meant for all, even for converted sinners. It is the way par excellence for us priests, both because of our personal vocation to sanctity and because of our official responsibility for the worship of God and for his glory. Let us pray, then, to Mary, whose humility made her worthy to be the Mother of God, to show us this way of sanctity and divine union and to obtain for us those special graces by which we can leave our self and cleave to God as our all.

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