In the last chapter we have seen the necessity of humility as understood by Saint Teresa; now we will consider her conception of its nature.
“Think of your Therese during this month of the Infant Jesus, and beg of Him that she may always remain a very little child. I shall offer the same prayer for you, because I know your desires and that humility is your favourite virtue. Which of us will be the more fervent? She who is the more humble, the more closely united to Jesus, and the more faithful in making love the mainspring of every action. We must not let slip one single occasion of sacrifice.” So wrote Teresa to her sister Leonie .two years before her death. In these words she sets out her view on the place humility should have in our spiritual life. To her it is a virtue to be embraced primarily as a means to union with Our Blessed Lord, a virtue demanding sacrifice, and exercised in the ordinary duties of our daily life.
With Saint Teresa humility is truth. “To me,” she says, “it seems that humility is truth. I do not know whether I am humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things.” We are truly humble only when we see ourselves as God sees us.
This is a great grace but, at the same time, it is a thing from which we shrink. We must bring ourselves to admit with sincerity: “I am really only what I am in His eyes.”
This loyalty to truth Saint Teresa pressed home in every detail of her life. In the Autobiography she writes that when she was quite a little girl, on hearing an action insincerely, as she thought, commended, she said to herself: “I should not have done that. We must always speak the truth.” In recording this incident, long years afterwards, when she was Novice Mistress and so in a position of authority, she adds: “And now I always speak it. It gives me a great deal of trouble, of course, but let nobody come to me if she does not want to be told the truth.”
She had no use for fancies in her spirituality. When one of the Sisters suggested that beautiful angels, all robed in white, with joyful, shining faces, would bear her soul to heaven, the Saint tersely said: “Fancies like these do not help me; my soul can feed only upon truth.”
Again she says: “Yes, it does seem to me that I am humble. God shows me the truth and I see clearly that everything comes from Him.”
A little after half-past two on the day she died – she died soon after seven o’clock – the Mother Prioress said to her: “My child, you are quite ready to appear before God because you have always understood the virtue of humility.” To this Saint Teresa replied faintly: “Yes, I feel that my soul has never sought anything but the truth.” These were almost her last words.
To see the truth in all things, to see ourselves and all around us as Our Lord does, is one of the greatest needs in our lives.
This detaches us from our own narrow point of view, enables us to judge calmly, and speak without fear of human respect. This grace was Saint Teresa’s supreme desire, and she prayed for it earnestly. “O my God, make me to see things as they really are, that I may not be deceived by any illusion. Thou knowest, O my God, that I seek the truth.”
When, with the help of grace, we begin to see things as they really are, the first thing we learn is that God is everything and that, apart from him, we are nothing. “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Saint Teresa had an overwhelming sense of her nothingness apart from Our Lord. It appears constantly in her writings. For her, being little meant admitting what she really was. “To be a little child means to recognise our nothingness, to look for everything from God, as a little child looks for everything from its father.” It is difficult to accept this truth. However well we may recognise it in theory, in practice we act as if we were convinced of our own power to deal with situations, we trust too readily in the strength of our own right arm. An old and wise priest once made this profound remark: “We all think we know our powers, some of us say we know our faults; none of us knows his nothingness, and that’s the only thing that matters.” The power of Our Lord’s lesson to his apostles on humility is precisely this, that it shows us our dependence on Almighty God by bringing it home to us through the dependence of a little child, a dependence which everyone sees at once to be absolute and complete. It is the mission of Saint Teresa to recall to us this simple Gospel lesson. “It is to God alone that all worth must be attributed. There is nothing of value in my little nothingness.”
She used to sign her letters to Mother Agnes “Votre tout petit neant”. There is nothing superficial here; Saint Teresa meant it, and it is pure Scripture: “My substance is as nothing before thee.” (Ps. 38:6)
It is interesting to follow the progress of her thought on her own nothingness.
“O Brother, how little known is the Merciful Love of the Heart of Jesus! It is true that to enjoy that treasure we must humble ourselves, must confess our nothingness; and here is where many a soul draws back.”
Yet she does not look at her nothingness apart from her possession of Our Lord. “Marie, though you are nothing, do not forget that Jesus is all. You have only to lose your nothingness in that Infinite All and thenceforth to think only of that All who alone is worthy of your love.”
Our Lord chose his apostles for the most exalted vocation, to handle things that were beyond all human comprehension. In training them for this vocation, he stressed again and again their dependence upon him. The miraculous draught of fishes is one occasion of this. The apostles had toiled all night and had taken nothing; then at Jesus’ word they once more let down the net, and it was filled with fish. Night and nothing – such are our efforts without Our Lord. The lesson of this miracle was understood by Saint Teresa. She says: “The Apostles laboured without Him. They toiled the whole night and caught no fish. Their labours were not unacceptable to Him, but He wished to prove that He is the Giver of all things. He asked for an act of humility. Saint Peter, avowing his helplessness, cried out: ‘Lord, we have laboured all night and taken nothing’. The heart of Jesus was deeply touched by his confession. If the apostles had caught some small fish, perhaps Jesus would not have wrought a miracle. But they had caught nothing. So, through the power of God, the net was filled with great fishes. Such is Our Lord’s way. He gives as God, with divine generosity, but He insists on humility of heart.”
To know ourselves as we really are is to recognise that we are a strange mixture of good and bad. We have talents and we have weaknesses. It is not humility to say that we can do nothing, for each of us is endowed with certain gifts, given us by Almighty God in order that we may fulfil the purpose for which he has placed us in this world – a purpose which we, and we alone, can fulfil. To realise this, we must become as little children. “To be little is not to attribute to oneself the virtues one practises, believing oneself capable of something, but to recognise that God puts the treasure of virtue into the hands of His little children, to serve Him when there is need of it, but it is always the treasure which belongs to God Himself.” Saint Teresa was a realist; she knew that God had given her great gifts and graces, yet never for one moment did she forget that they were gifts, to be used solely for him. She never took credit to herself for anything. One day the Mother Prioress brought her a little sheaf of corn. Saint Teresa took an ear of corn which was so laden with grain that it bent upon its stalk. After looking at it for some time, she said to the Mother Prioress: “That ear of corn, dear Mother, is the image of my soul which God has loaded with graces for me and many others; and it is my earnest desire to bend beneath the weight of His gifts, acknowledging that all comes from Him.”
As her life drew to its close, and some of the Sisters began to realise her virtues, she was more than ever insistent that they came solely from God. “No, I am not a Saint. I have never performed the works of the Saints. I am just a little soul whom God has overwhelmed with His grace. You will see in heaven that all I say is the truth.” With almost passionate earnestness, she begs those around her not to attribute anything to herself. One of the Sisters spoke of the beauty of her soul. Saint Teresa replied quickly: “What beauty? I do not at all see my beauty. I see only the graces which I have received from God.” Again: “I have never had patience, not for a single minute. It is not mine. You are all mistaken.”
Our gifts may be our greatest temptation. Only those who are little children – that is to say, conscious from beginning to end of their utter nothingness – can escape the snare. We must become children again if we have lost this realisation of our dependence upon God, and, like children, keep our hand tightly in his. “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Whatever our talents, they bear fruit only when used in partnership with Our Lord from whom they come; alone, we have nothing in which to glory. “What hast thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received, why dost thou glory, as though thou hast not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) One of the surest means of testing ourselves is to examine our attitude towards our daily faults and imperfections. Most of us refuse to face these imperfections squarely, yet, as Saint Teresa points out, “the Heart of Jesus is more grieved by the countless little imperfections of His friends than by the faults, however grave, that His enemies commit.”
Humility is seeing things as they really are, and accepting them without bitterness. It enables us to use our gifts safely, to the glory of God and not for our own aggrandisement. Also, it enables us to learn from our faults our complete dependence upon God, so that we surrender ourselves, together with those faults, into the arms of Our Lord, and let him transform them into means of union with him. In this way, so far from being impatient or discouraged, we learn to welcome the knowledge of them.
“We must never be discouraged by our faults,” says Saint Teresa. And not only this, but again she says: “I am happy to see how imperfect I am.” And again she gives us her reason: it is because her failings teach her her weakness. “It happens to me often that I fail thus, but I am never astonished at it... I say to myself: ‘I am back at the first step, as before’; but this I say in great peace, without sadness; it is so good to feel oneself to be little and weak.” “My weakness is still very great. Every day some new and wholesome experience brings this home more clearly.” “The remembrance of my faults humbles me, and helps me never to rely on my own strength, which is mere weakness.” The consciousness of her weakness throws her more completely into the arms of Our Lord. “Of course we should like never to fall. What an illusion! What does it matter if I fall every moment? In that way I realise my weakness, and in that I find great gain. My God, You see what I am if You do not hold me in Your arms.”
True humility, therefore, is a most active thing, and humility in action is the removing, through surrender to grace, of all these faults and failings, so that, where pride and self-love have hitherto dominated, the love of Our Lord may reign instead.
“When one accepts with sweetness the humiliation of having fallen into some imperfection, the grace of God returns at once.” “All we have to do is to humble ourselves, to bear with meekness our imperfections. Herein lies for us true holiness.” “Jesus can grant me the grace never to offend Him any more, or rather never to commit any faults but those which do not offend Him or give Him pain, faults which serve to humble me and strengthen my love.” “It is true I am not always faithful, but I never lose courage. I leave myself in the arms of Our Lord. He teaches me to draw profit from everything, from the good and from the bad which He finds in me.”
Now we understand why Saint Teresa says: “It does not worry me to find that I am weakness itself. In this I glory; and I expect every day to discover new imperfections in me; and I acknowledge that these lights on my own nothingness do me more good than lights on matters of faith.”
At first this sounds startling. Yet it is true; for where there is pride the light of faith cannot penetrate. Lights on the faith may indeed minister to spiritual pride, but the humble placing of one’s infirmities in the hands of Jesus is a sure road to sanctity. Like Saint Teresa we must learn to say: “Jesus does everything in me. I just remain little and weak.” Only then can we say with truth: “My very weakness makes me strong.” “It is Jesus who takes upon Himself to fill our souls according as we rid them of imperfections.”
In all of this we notice how truly Pauline is Saint Teresa’s teaching. “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities... For when I am weak, then am I powerful.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Saint Teresa calls us back to this truth. “I pray that Jesus may take possession of all my powers, all my faculties, that henceforth my actions may be solely divine, inspired and directed by His Holy Spirit of Love.”
This aspiration of Saint Teresa’s may well become our own prayer, but always we must remember that it is by the sanctification of our weaknesses that this sublime prayer finds its fulfilment; and this is just one of those secrets which are hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed only to little ones.