One of the ways in which the devil tries to lessen the influence of the Saint is to make the littleness of the Little Way, which is in fact its strength, appear mere weakness. It gives rise to the fear of sentimentality, and so prevents many from really understanding “the greatest Saint of modern times”. (Pius X)
There is, however, another, and a deeper reason for our shrinking from the word “little”; it strikes at our self-esteem. We do not know what this littleness may involve; we are afraid, and keep the Little Way at arm’s length, unconscious that we are afraid, and that in so doing we are rejecting the very secret of sanctity.
Yet many of those who, at first, have felt a distaste for the littleness of Saint Teresa have, after a patient pursuit of the Little Way, found it to be the greatest possible support in some acute crisis of their lives.
Our Lord was not ashamed to use the word “little”. He used it again and again; and Saint Teresa merely follows him. So far from being ashamed to use it, he tells us explicitly that only those who are little can understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven; that it is through the Father’s infinite wisdom that those secrets remain hidden from those who put their trust in their own wisdom and prudence. “I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father: for so hath it seemed good in thy sight.” (Matthew 11:25-26) On another occasion he rebukes his disciples for keeping little children away from him because, he says, the kingdom of heaven is for those who are childlike: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Amen I say to you: whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it.” (Mark 10:14-15) But most striking of all is the scene in which he tells his apostles that unless they are converted from all the world’s false ideas of greatness, and become as little children, not even they can enter the kingdom of heaven. Then he explains quite plainly what it is that his apostles must learn from little children; it is their humility, their “littleness”. “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into’ the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
All the strength and power of those who follow the Little Way lies in their littleness and humility, which to Saint Teresa are one and the same thing. “Holiness does not consist in one exercise or another, but in a disposition of the heart which renders us humble and little in the hands of God.” “To reach heaven I need not become great; on the contrary I must remain little, I must become even smaller than I am.” This same truth she puts in a letter to her sister Celine: ‘‘One must be very little to draw near to Jesus! O how few are the souls who desire to be little and unknown!” Therefore it is with perfect logic that she says: “What pleases God is to see me love my littleness.” Her love of humility is intense. On the day of her profession she bore next her heart a slip of paper on which were written these words: “O Jesus, grant that no one may think of me, that I may be forgotten and trodden underfoot as a grain of sand.” And towards the end of her life she prays: “I desire to humble myself in all sincerity, and to submit my will to that of my Sisters without ever contradicting them and without questioning whether they have the right to command.” Does Saint Teresa exaggerate? We have already seen that the Gospels are her daily nourishment, and to Saint Teresa the Gospels were the Manual of Divine Humility. As she meditated on the Gospels, the Holy Spirit revealed to her secrets hidden from the wise and prudent. Our attention is specially drawn to this by the Holy See: “Above all she nourished heart and soul with the inspired Word of God on which she meditated assiduously, and the Spirit of Truth taught her what he hides as a rule from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones.” (Pius XI) Saint Teresa tells us herself how this came about. “Sometimes, when I read books in which perfection is put before us with the goal obstructed by a thousand obstacles, my poor head is quickly fatigued. I close the learned treatise which tires my brain and dries up my heart and I turn to the Sacred Scriptures. Then all becomes clear – a single word opens out new vistas, perfection appears easy, and I see it is enough to acknowledge one’s nothingness and surrender oneself like a child into God’s arms. Leaving to great and lofty minds the beautiful books which I cannot understand, still less put into practice, I rejoice in my littleness because ‘only little children and those who are like them shall be admitted to the Heavenly Banquet’.” “As soon as I open the Gospels, I breathe the fragrance of the life of Jesus and I know which way to run. It is not to the highest place but to the lowest that I hasten. Leaving the Pharisee to go forward, I repeat with all confidence the humble prayer of the publican.” “For me, I find nothing in books with the exception of the Gospels. That book suffices me. I hear with delight the words of Jesus, in which He tells me all I have to do: ‘Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart’. That gives me peace according to His promise: ‘And you shall find rest to your soul’.”
It is no exaggeration, then, to say that to Saint Teresa the Gospels were, above all, the Manual of Divine Humility. With the Saint as our guide we will consider them and see how entirely true this is.
It is in the setting of humility that the Incarnation is ushered in. The Angel Gabriel is sent, not to Rome, the political centre of the world, nor to Athens, the seat of learning, nor to Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish religion, but to Nazareth, an unknown town hidden in the silence of the Galilean hills. And in this humble town it was to the humblest of its members that the Angel Gabriel came, for it was the humility of Mary that drew God to choose her for his Mother. We learn this from Our Lady’s lips: “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid... He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.” (Luke 1:47-52)
When he was born, it was in the most humble setting. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger: because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) Thus took place the greatest event in the history of the human race. For thirty years at Nazareth the Son of God, unhurried and undisturbed, led the life of a village carpenter, though the weight of the world’s redemption lay upon his shoulders. For thirty years Nazareth held this secret in its heart, and none but Mary and Joseph knew the treasure hidden there.
When Our Lord leaves Nazareth for his public ministry the blessedness of humility is the subject with which he opens his first great sermon to the multitude which has gathered round him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.” (Matthew 5:3-4) And when he would teach his disciples the lesson which, above all others, he would have his followers learn from him, it is not to his miracles nor to his doctrine, profound though it is, that he directs their attention: it is to his humility. “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
In sharp contrast with the humility of Jesus was the pride and self-satisfaction of the religious leaders of his time, the scribes and Pharisees. Twice Our Lord condemns it. On the first occasion, he is sitting at meat with them, and he gently rebukes them for desiring to be first and to receive homage from men. He tells them not to seek the foremost place, lest a more honourable guest than they should arrive, and they, in consequence, should have with shame to take the lowest place. “Because everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
The second occasion is the last day in the Temple. Our Lord has made his appeal to the leaders of the Jews, and they have rejected it completely; and the reason for their rejection is their pride. Now, in the presence of his friends and his enemies, in the presence of the Pharisees themselves, before all the people, Our Lord condemns the scribes and Pharisees with unparalleled vehemence. In the Sermon on the Mount he opened with the blessedness of humility; now he opens with an indictment of pride. “The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not... They love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues... But... he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:2-12)
The subtleness of pride was pointed out by Our Lord in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. In the person of the Pharisee Our Lord indicates the results of spiritual pride. It makes him stop short in himself and breeds scorn and criticism of his fellow-men. On the other hand, the humble and contrite prayer of the publican opens his soul to God who can then lavish his grace upon him and use him for his own glory. The parable closes with the reiterated warning: “Everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
We shall see with what earnestness he repeatedly tries to teach his own apostles the necessity of humility. If humility was necessary for the scribes and Pharisees, much more was it necessary for his own chosen band. The astonishing thing is that although they had Our Lord’s example always with them, the apostles seem to have been unable to understand this virtue. The first occasion was when they stood silent before Our Lord, unable for very shame to tell him that they had been arguing about which among them should be greatest. The Divine Master makes his lesson most abundantly clear. First he declares: “If any man desire to be first, he shall be the last of all and the minister of all.” (Mark 9:34) Then seeing a child nearby, and calling him into their midst, he tells them that unless they are converted from all their false ideas of greatness and become as little children, so far from being first or second in his kingdom, they will not even enter it! Finally he shows them where true greatness lies. “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
The simplicity of this lesson is such that one wonders how the apostles could have failed to understand it. Yet at the very end of his public ministry the same question arises again. Two of his apostles, James and John, come to him with a request: “Master, we desire that whatsoever we shall ask, thou wouldst do it for us.” A perfect example of a completely wrong prayer, an attempt to twist the Divine Will to theirs. Our Lord does not rebuke them. With all their blindness he loves them. He merely asks: “What would you that I should do for you? They answer: Grant us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand in thy glory.” Again Jesus does not rebuke them. He merely tells them that they know not what they ask, and that it is not his to give. At this point there comes a very human touch. “And the ten hearing it began to be much displeased at James and John.” Why? Because they understood what James and John had failed to grasp? We shall see that this was not so. It was rather because they wanted, like James and John, to be first or second. Once more Jesus gathers them round him and, using this time the very same words as before, tries to teach them humility, only this time by directing their attention to his own example. “Whosoever will be first among you shall be the servant of all. For the Son of man also is not come to be ministered unto: but to minister and to give his life a redemption for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
Surely the twelve have learned their lesson. But no, the same trouble occurs again – in the Upper Room on the evening of his Passion and, incredible as it seems, at the supper-table, immediately after the first Mass. “And there was also a strife amongst them, which of them should seem to be the greater.” Once again Our Lord repeats his lesson: “He that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger: and he that is the leader, as he that serveth... But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth.” (Luke 22:24-27)
Yet this time he goes further; he himself gives them an example. “He riseth from supper and layeth aside his garments and, having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded... Then after he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, being set down again, he said to them: Know you what I have done to you? You call me Master, and Lord. And you say well, for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” (John 13:4-15) The twelve never forgot this scene, and the Church has preserved its memory for all time in the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday.
His own example of humility, given to his disciples in the Upper Room, was but the prelude to the supreme manifestation of it in his acceptance of the Cross, which has become the standard borne by all who follow him. From the Upper Room to Calvary, it was one series of humiliations. The men who took him prisoner in Gethsemani “mocked him and struck him. And they blindfolded him and smote his face.” (Luke 22:63-64)
He is taken before the Sanhedrin and is condemned as guilty of death. Again the mocking is repeated, but this time they not only strike the Sacred Face, they also spit upon it. And this was done by the religious leaders of the day. “Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him. And others struck his face with the palms of their hands.” (Matthew 26:67) He is taken before Pilate, his Sacred Body is torn by the scourgings, and then, while he is left waiting to be taken to Calvary, he is publicly mocked once more by the soldiers. “And stripping him they put a scarlet cloak about him. And plaiting a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand. And bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying: Hail, King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:28-29)
The soldiers take him to Calvary. He is nailed to the Cross and dies between two criminals on the public scaffold. His body is taken down and buried in a grave. So closes the story of the humiliation of the Son of God. With Our Lord’s example before us, we dare not call Saint Teresa’s love of humility exaggerated or unpractical. Why did the Father allow his Son to be so humiliated in his Passion?
Why did he permit his creatures to strike and spit upon his Sacred Face? Because without humility there can be no salvation; we must be brought to realise this no matter what the cost The root of all sin is pride. Pride, the desire to be as gods, was the motive of that disobedience which caused the Fall and the consequent flood of sin and misery. Pride being the cause of sin and of the loss of heaven, humility will be the key to salvation and to the regaining of the kingdom of heaven, but since man’s disobedience was an offence against God, only God could make true reparation; therefore the key to the kingdom of heaven is the humility of the Son of God.
By his act of humble obedience on the Cross, Our Lord overcame sin and its cause, restoring all that had been lost. By this willing acceptance of a humiliating death, he overcame death and the devil. He was obedient unto death, death on a Cross, “that, through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14)
“Unless you be converted and become as little children you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” We see now why, in spite of Our Lord’s insistence on humility, the apostles found it so very hard to learn the lesson. The secret lies in the word “converted”. Pride being the cause of all sin, to practise humility meant for the apostles the conversion of their nature at the point where it was most badly damaged and most warped by original sin.
What was hard for the apostles will not be easy for us. It is the most difficult thing in the world to become humble. It must be so, for to practise humility is to cut at the very roots of sin; it is to undo the results of the devil’s supreme achievement, the Fall. He will do anything to stop our being humble, and he is very subtle. His great aim is to deceive us so that we do not see things as they really are. First he blinds us to the fact that pride is the greatest of all sins. He leads us to think that other sins are more important, and so the most deadly one slips through unnoticed. Secondly, when we do realise the importance of pride in general, he blinds us to the reality of pride in our own case. Finally, even when we do recognise our own pride, he so plays upon our self-love that we cannot face the conversion necessary – that conversion which alone can deliver us out of the bonds of pride into the freedom of humility.
Humility is the logical putting into practice of the teaching of the Gospels, to which Teresa unerringly leads us back. They are, above all else, the Manual of Divine Humility, and it was from these that she drew the inspiration of her prayer for humility, with which we will close this chapter:
“O Jesus, when Thou wast a wayfarer upon earth, Thou didst say: “Learn of Me because I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest to your souls.” O Almighty King of Heaven! My soul indeed finds rest in seeing Thee thus condescend to wash the feet of Thy Apostles – “having taken the form of a slave”. I recall the words Thou didst utter lo teach me the practice of humility: “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so do you also. The servant is not greater than his Lord... If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them”. I understand, dear Lord, these words which come from Thy meek and humble heart, and I wish to put them into practice with the help of Thy grace.
I desire to humble myself in all sincerity, and to submit my will to that of my Sisters, without ever contradicting them, and without questioning whether they have the right to command. No one, O my Beloved, had that right over Thee, and yet Thou didst obey not only the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph but even Thy executioners. And now, in the Holy Eucharist, I see Thee complete in Thy self-abasement. O Divine King of Glory, with wondrous humility Thou dost submit Thyself to all Thy priests, without any distinction between those who love Thee and those who, alas, are lukewarm or cold in Thy service. They may advance or delay the hour of the Holy Sacrifice: Thou art always ready to come down from Heaven at their call.
O my Beloved, under the white Eucharistic veil thou dost indeed appear to me meek and humble of heart! To teach me humility, Thou canst not further abase Thyself, and so I wish to respond to Thy Love by putting myself in the lowest place, by sharing Thy humiliations, so that I may have part with Thee in the kingdom of Heaven.
I implore Thee, dear Jesus, to send me a humiliation whensoever I try to set myself above others. Thou knowest my weakness. Each morning I resolve to be humble, and in the evening I recognise that I have often been guilty of pride. The sight of these faults tempts me to discouragement: yet I know that discouragement is itself a form of pride. I wish therefore, O my God, to build all my trust upon Thee. As Thou canst do all things, deign to implant in my soul this virtue which I desire: and to obtain it from Thy infinite mercy, I will often say to Thee: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.”