SECTION TWO: Some Thoughts of Monsieur Vincent About the Virtue of Humility
Although Monsieur Vincent sought to humble himself on all occasions, as we have said in this chapter, and all sorts of situations gave him opportunities for practicing this virtue, there were two main motives, like two pivots, on which his thoughts ever turned. They guided his own practice and the counsels he gave to others.
The first of these was the exalted knowledge and appreciation he had for the infinite perfections of God and for the failings of creatures. These made him regard it as unjust not to humble himself everywhere and in all things, because of the miserable condition of man and the grandeur and infinite perfections of God. This is how he spoke to his community on one occasion:
In truth, gentlemen and my brothers, if we all study ourselves well, we will find it most just and reasonable to despise ourselves. If we consider only the corruption of our nature, the flightiness of our minds, the darkness of our understanding, the lack of control of our will, and the impurity of our affections, and besides, if we weigh in the scales of the sanctuary our works and our projects, we will find them all worthy of contempt. But you will say to me, what do you make of the many sermons we have preached, the confessions heard, the trouble taken to help our neighbor and to serve our Lord? Yes, gentlemen, if we reflect on even our best actions, we will find them ruined by the way they were done or in their motive, and in whatever way we look at them there is as much evil as good in them. Tell me, please, what would you expect from the weakness of man? What do you expect from nothingness? Who commits sin? What do we have of ourselves but nothingness and sin? You must hold it as certain that in everything and everywhere we are worthy only of rejection. We are always most contemptible because of the innate opposition within ourselves to the sanctity and other perfections of God, to imitating the life of Jesus Christ, to responding to the workings of his grace.
To persuade ourselves more of this truth, think of the natural and constant inclination we have for evil, our helplessness to achieve any good, and the experience we all have even when we think we have succeeded well in what we attempted, or things have gone as we suggested. Yet it happens just the opposite of what we expected, and God often allows us to be mistaken. If then we look into ourselves well, we will see that in all we think, say, or do, either in itself or in its circumstances, we are filled with confusion and contempt. If we do not give way to flattering ourselves, we will see that we are not only more evil than other men, but in some way worse than the devils in hell. If these unhappy spirits had been given the graces and opportunities given to us to make us better, they would have used them a thousand times better than we have.1
The second motive for the humility of Monsieur Vincent was the example and words of Jesus Christ. He kept Jesus Christ ever in view, and held him up for others to imitate. Speaking of this once in a conference to his community, he recalled the words of our Lord, “Learn of me, for I am humble of heart,”2 and, “He who humbles himself will be exalted, and he who exalts himself shall be humbled.”3 He then added:
What was the life of this divine Savior but one continuous humiliation? He loved it so that he was never without humiliations during his whole life. Even after his death he willed that the Church should represent his divine person by the image of the crucifix, appearing before our eyes in a state of ignominy, as a criminal, and as suffering the most shameful and infamous death imaginable. Why is this? Because he knew the excellence of humility and the malice of the contrary vice. It not only makes other sins more grave, but even ruins other acts which of themselves are not bad. It can infect and corrupt even the good things we do, no matter how holy they may be.4
The mind and heart of Monsieur Vincent were filled with these two great and powerful motives of humility. We should therefore not be surprised if on all occasions he showed great appreciation for this virtue, and attempted to have it solidly implanted, sending down deep roots in the hearts of all sorts of people, especially his own dear confreres. Here is what he said to his community on one occasion:
Humility is a virtue so complete, so difficult, and so necessary, that we cannot think of it too often. This was the virtue of Jesus Christ and of his mother, the virtue of the greatest of the saints, and it is the virtue of all missionaries. What am I saying? I repeat, I would wish we all had this virtue, for when I said it is the virtue of missionaries, I mean it is the virtue we most need, and which we should ardently desire. This wretched Company, the least of all, was founded on humility as its proper virtue. Without it we will do nothing of value, neither for others nor for ourselves. Without humility we can expect to make no progress ourselves, nor do any good for our neighbor.
O Savior, give us this holy virtue, which is yours, which you brought to the world, and which you loved so dearly. And you, gentlemen, those of you who want to become true missionaries, you must work to acquire this virtue and advance in its practice. Above all, be on your guard against thoughts of pride, ambition, and vanity, as the greatest enemies you could have. You must flee from them as soon as they appear to put an end to them, and must watch carefully to give them no entrance. Yes, I say it once again, if you wish to be a true missionary, each one of you personally must be pleased if you are looked upon as poor and wretched, as persons without virtue, as ignoramuses, or if you are harmed and despised, or blamed for your faults, or declared to be insufferable because of your miseries and imperfections.5
I would go even further and say that we should be pleased when our Congregation in general is reviled as useless for the Church, composed of poor specimens. Be pleased when it does poorly whatever it tries to do, when its efforts for the poor peasants bear no fruit, the seminaries are useless, and the ordination retreats have little to recommend them. Yes, if we have the spirit of Jesus Christ, we ought to rejoice to be treated like this, as I have just said. Possibly someone will say, Monsieur, what are you saying? Durus est hic sermo [“This is a hard saying”].6 I will admit it, this is hard for nature. It is difficult to persuade ourselves we have done poorly, and even harder to have others think and speak this way and blame us. But all this is easy for a truly humble soul to understand, one who has true humility and knows himself as he really is. Far from this causing him any sadness, he, on the contrary, will rejoice and be content to see God exalted and glorified through his humility and nothingness. I know well that our Lord has given this grace to several in the Company, to run swiftly in the pursuit of this virtue, and to animate their actions in the hope of their own diminution, and in the desire to remain hidden and unappreciated. We must ask this grace for all the rest of us, so that we may have no other ambition than to see ourselves lowered and annihilated for the love and glory of God, and to ensure that the characteristic virtue of the missionary is humility.
To make you appreciate this more, notice what I am about to say: if you have ever heard outsiders say that something good has been done by the Company, you will find that it was because they found some small bit of humility in it, and they have seen some humiliating and abject actions done, such as instructing the peasants or serving the poor. Also, if you have ever noticed the ordinands leaving their exercises edified at what they had seen in our house, if you look closely you will notice that they have been struck by the humble and simple way they have seen us act. This is something new for them, and it is this which charms and attracts everyone. I know that in the last ordination retreat, a priest who attended left behind accidentally some notes in which he expressed how much he was affected by the displays of humility he had seen.7
Another time, he spoke to his community on this same virtue:
Pay attention to the recommendation of our Lord in these words: “Learn of me for I am humble of heart,”8 and ask him to give you a full understanding of them. If he gives us only an ardent desire for humility, that will be enough, even though we do not fully appreciate this virtue as our Lord did. He knew of its relationship to the perfections of God his Father, and to the vileness of sinful man. It is true that we will never see this, except dimly in this life, but we in our darkness should have confidence that, if our heart is set on humiliations, God will give us humility, we will preserve it, and it will grow in us by the acts we will do. One act of virtue well made disposes us for the next, and so the first degree of humility leads to the second, the second to the third, and so on for all the others.9 Remember, gentlemen and my brothers, that Jesus Christ, speaking of the publican’s humility, said that God heard his prayer. If he had said this of a man who had done wrong all his life, what should be our hope, provided we are truly humble? On the contrary, what happened to the Pharisee? This was a man whose position separated him from the rest of the people, because it was like a sect among the Jews. The Pharisees prayed, fasted, and did many other good deeds, yet these did not keep Jesus from reproving him. Why was this? Because he looked upon these good deeds with pleasure, and gave way to vanity, as though they were owed to himself alone.
Look, then, at a just man and a sinner before the throne of God. Because the just man has no humility, he is rejected and reproved, along with his good works. What appeared as virtue in him turns out to be vice. On the other hand, the sinner recognizes his misery. Moved by a true sentiment of humility, he stays at the door of the temple, striking his breast, and does not dare to lift his eyes to heaven. By this humble disposition of heart, though he came to the temple guilty of many sins, he is cleansed of them. All this comes from a single act of humiliation, which for him proved to be his means of salvation. We should see from this that humility, when it is true, brings other virtues into the soul, and in humbling himself profoundly and sincerely, the sinner becomes the just. Even if we are wicked criminals but turn to humility, we shall be justified. On the contrary, if we are like the angels themselves, and excel in the practice of the greatest virtues, but lack humility, these virtues will be destroyed in us. They have no foundation because of our lack of humility, and we will become like the damned, totally deprived of all virtue.
Let us hold on to this truth, gentlemen. Let each one engrave it carefully on his heart and say to himself: though I had all virtues, and yet did not have humility I would be mistaken for thinking myself to be virtuous. I would be nothing but a proud pharisee and an abominable missionary. O Savior Jesus Christ, spread over us your divine light that filled your own soul, that made you prefer contempt to praise! Touch our hearts with these holy desires which burned and consumed your own, and which made you seek the glory of your heavenly Father in your own abnegation. Grant us in your grace that we may begin from this moment to reject all that does not lead to your honor and our own rejection. Take from us all that caters to our own vanity, ostentation, and self-esteem, that we may renounce once and for all the false applause of men and vain complacency in the success of our own efforts. O Savior, may we learn by your grace and by your example, to be truly humble of heart.10
One morning after meditation, he questioned one of the missionaries before the assembled community about the thoughts he had entertained in his meditation. He replied that he had experienced great uneasiness during a large part of the prayer. Monsieur Vincent took the occasion to speak to the community:
It is good to speak of such humiliating things when prudence allows us to reveal them. We can draw profit from them by overcoming the natural repugnance we have to reveal what our pride would wish to keep hidden. Saint Augustine published the secret sins of his youth in his autobiography, letting the whole world know of his errors and the excesses of his debauchery.11 And did not that vessel of election, the great apostle Saint Paul, raised to the third heavens in vision, confess that he had persecuted the Church? He put this in his writings so that until the end of time he would be known as a persecutor of the Church.12 Certainly, if we listened to ourselves, and did not do violence to ourselves, we would never speak of our misery and our faults. No, we would hide everything leading to our own confusion. This we have inherited from our first parent, Adam, who went into hiding after he had offended God.13
On many occasions I have visited various convents, where I have asked the religious there what virtue most appealed to them. I asked this question even of some I knew had little attraction for humility. Of the twenty or so I asked I found scarcely one who did not say it was the virtue of humility, so true it is that all find this virtue beautiful and attractive. How does it come about, then, that so few embrace it and even fewer possess it? This is because they are satisfied with thinking about it, but do not take the trouble to practice it. They are enthralled at speculation, but practice has a stark face. Practicing humility displeases us because it makes us choose the lowest place, after all others, even the least. It has us suffer calumnies, seek contempt, love abjection, all things for which we have a natural aversion. But we must rise above this repugnance, and make an effort to arrive at the actual practice of this virtue, or else we will never acquire it.
I am well aware that some here, by God’s grace, practice this divine virtue, and do not entertain a lofty opinion of their talents, their knowledge, or their virtue. They recognize themselves as miserable creatures and are willing to be taken for such, and put themselves beneath all other creatures. I must confess that I never meet these persons without being thrown into confusion. They are a silent reproach to my pride, abominable as I am. These poor souls are always at peace, their joy appearing on their faces. The Holy Spirit dwells in them, blessing them so with his gift of peace that nothing can trouble them. If they are contradicted, they give way. If calumniated, they bear it. If forgotten, they assume that it is with good reason. If they are overwhelmed with duties, they work willingly, doing whatever they can. The more difficult a thing commanded is, the more willingly they accept it, confiding in the power of holy obedience. Temptations which come to them serve only to strengthen their humility, making them have recourse to God and bringing them victories over the devil. They have no more enemies to combat, save only pride. It gives no truce during life, but attacks even the greatest saints in various ways. It causes some to take vain complacency in the good they have done, or has others rejoice in the knowledge they have acquired. One assumes that he is especially enlightened, while another thinks of himself as better and more stable than others. This is why we have great reason to pray that God would protect us, and save us from this pernicious vice. It is to be feared precisely because we have such a natural inclination towards it.
We should, therefore, be on our guard, and do the contrary of what corrupt nature urges. If it puffs us up, we should abase ourselves. If we are inclined to self-esteem, we should think of our weakness. If we discover a desire to be known and appreciated, we should conceal what would make us noticed. We should prefer base and vile actions to those which have a certain flair and which are honorable. Finally, we should return often to our love of abjection as an assured refuge from all these disturbances which this unhappy bent for pride ever raises within us. Let us pray our Lord to attach us to himself by the merits of the adorable humility of his life and death. Let us offer him, each of us individually, and all of us in common solidarity, all that we can practice of this virtue. Let us give ourselves to this with the sole motive of honoring him and confounding ourselves.14
Another time, he spoke to his community of what had been said in a recent Clergy Conference.
These clergy who came here took as their topic of conversation last Tuesday what each had noticed of the virtues of the late Monsieur Olier, a member of their company. Among other remarks, one of the more important was that the great servant of God often spoke of humility. Among all his other virtues this seemed to be the most prominent.
While they were speaking of this, I glanced at the various portraits adorning the walls of our room. I said to myself, Lord my God, if we could penetrate Christian truths as they are and act accordingly, how differently we would act! For example, looking at the portrait of the Blessed Bishop of Geneva, I thought that if we looked upon the things of the world in the same way he did, and if we spoke with his sentiments, and if our eyes were open to eternal truths as were his, vanity would have little room to occupy our minds and hearts.
Above all, gentlemen, if we look carefully at the most beautiful picture of all, that admirable example of humility, our Lord Jesus Christ, would we allow any good opinion of ourselves to enter our minds, seeing that we are so far from his profound abasements? Would we be so rash as to prefer ourselves to others, seeing that a murderer was chosen over him? Are we afraid of being looked upon as miserable, seeing the innocent lamb treated as a malefactor, and dying between two criminals, as if he were the worst of the three? Let us pray to God, gentlemen, to save us from this blindness. Let us ask him for the grace to tend always to the lowest, confessing to him and before men that of ourselves we are but sin, ignorance, and malice. Let us hope others will believe this of us, and will say so, and hold us in contempt. Lose no opportunity to annihilate yourself by the practice of this holy virtue. It is not enough to appreciate this virtue and to resolve to practice it, as some have done. We must do violence to ourselves to practice the acts of this virtue, which we have not sufficiently done.15
A priest of the Mission working in Artois, his native region, had a small pamphlet printed on his own initiative, which discussed the Congregation of the Mission.16 When Monsieur Vincent learned of it he was greatly troubled, since it is opposed to the spirit of humility which he had attempted to inculcate in all members of the Company. He wrote to the priest in these terms:
If on the one hand I was consoled to see you return to Artois, on the other I was sorry to learn that you had published a short account of our institute. I was so moved by this that I cannot adequately describe it, for it is something strongly opposed to humility to publish who we are and what we do. This goes counter to the example of our Lord who during the time he was on earth wrote no accounts of his words or his works. If there is any good in us and in our manner of life, it is for God to manifest it as he sees fit. We are but poor folk, ignorant, and sinners. We ought to hide ourselves as useless in accomplishing any good, and unworthy that anyone should think well of us. For this reason, Monsieur, God has given me the grace up to the present of never consenting to having anything printed which would make us known and esteemed, although I have been strongly urged to publish some of the accounts coming from Madagascar, Barbary, and the Hebrides Islands. For even stronger reasons, I have not allowed the printing of anything having to do with the essence and spirit, the foundation and growth of the Company, and the functions and end of our institute. May it please God that it stays this way, but since there is no remedy for the present situation, I will say no more. I would ask you only never to undertake anything affecting the Company as a whole, unless you first alert me beforehand.17
This truly humble servant of God could not help repeating and inculcating to his Company the beautiful lessons of this virtue of humility. This is how he spoke on another occasion:
God has not sent us to take up responsibilities and honorable positions, nor to speak and act with pomp and a show of authority. He sent us solely to evangelize the poor, and to perform the other exercises of our institute humbly, gently, and familiarly. This is why we are able to apply to ourselves what Saint John Chrysostom said in one of his homilies, that as long as we remain sheep by a true and sincere humility, not only will we not be devoured by the wolves, but we will change them into sheep.18 On the other hand, as soon as we leave the humble and simple way proper to our institute, we will lose the grace attached to it. We will not find this grace in the brilliant things we undertake. Is it not right that a missionary who has made himself worthy of the blessing of heaven in his humble profession, and who gains thereby the approbation and esteem of men, should be deprived of both the one and the other when he allows himself to be drawn to works which by their splendor reflect the spirit of the world, and which are contrary to the spirit of his state? Should he not fear that he would fade away in due time, and fall into disarray? Recall what is said about a servant who becomes a master. He becomes proud and insupportable.
The late Cardinal de Berulle, that great servant of God, used to say that it was good to remain in the lower place. The least positions are the surest, and there are untold perils in the higher places. This is why all the saints have fled honors. To convince us by his example and his words, our Lord said of himself that he had come into the world to serve and not to be served.19
Monsieur Vincent held it as a maxim that humility was the root of charity, and the more a person was humble the more charitable he was towards his neighbor. On this subject, he said to his community:
During the sixty-seven years that God has put up with me on this earth, I have thought and thought again about the best means to acquire and preserve union and charity towards God and the neighbor. I have not discovered anything better or more efficacious than holy humility to put oneself beneath all others, to think ill of no one, to regard oneself as the least and worst of all. Self-love and pride blind us and lead us to maintain our opinions against those of our neighbor.20
He said another time:
We should never look to see what is good in us, but study to know the evil and the defective. This is a fine way to preserve humility. The gift of converting souls, or all the other talents we have are not for us, for we are only the bearer of the gift. With all that, we could easily be damned. No one should congratulate himself nor take pleasure in himself, nor think much of himself, seeing that God operates his marvels through humility. He should rather humble himself, and recognize himself as an unworthy instrument which God deigns to use. God used the rod of Moses to work prodigies and miracles, although in itself it was only a worthless stick and a fragile rod.21
- CED XI:58-59.
- Matt 11:29.
- Matt 23:12.
- CED XI:61.
- CED XI:56-57.
- John 6:61.
- CED XII:202-04.
- Matt 11:29.
- To the foregoing fragment, Abelly added the following either from another conference, or from a much different version.
- CED XII:209-11.
- Confessions, Book XII, 8.286.
- 1 Tim 1:13.
- Gen 3:8.
- CED XI:53-56.
- CED XI:393-94.
- Guillaume Delville published this account in 1656. CED VI:176-77. A translation appears in Vincentian Heritage 10 (1989) 71-87.
- CED XI:176-77.
- PG 57:389.
- Matt 20:28. CED XI:61-62.
- CED XI:152-53.
- CED XI:59-60.