CONSIDERATION FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY.
The Solid Humility of St. Thomas.
“Humilitas facit hominem capacem Dei.”
“Humility draws a man near to God.”
FIRST POINT.—Consider how St. Thomas of Aquin sought from youth to ground himself in humility. To be able to submit one’s own will and to take a place below others, is a sign of genuine magnanimity; as, on the contrary, to look upon neglect or reproof as an injury, bespeaks narrow-mindedness. Great souls are great in this, that they clearly discern and acknowledge their own indigence and helplessness in many affairs; whilst the less-gifted deceive themselves as to their own ability. The great Master, St. Thomas, was endowed with a noble, an elevated soul, which easily understood the defects of the human mind, and upon which had been lavished the highest favors of God. But we must not fancy that humility was his by right. No; he had to win this virtue for himself, he had to strengthen, perfect, and preserve it. If the Breviary says of him on his feast: “O munus Dei gratiae, vincens quodvis miraculum, pestiferae superbiae nunquam persensit stimulum.” O gift of God’s grace, excelling every wonder: the poisonous sting of pride he never felt!”. . . . Yet it was his constant care to guard the lowly virtue. What his biographers relate on this point of the time of his early studies, is both affecting and instructive.
The young novice was skilful in hiding his talents so that his fellow-students in the lecture hall of the great Albert of Cologne, deceived by his constant silence and modest reserve, concluded that it was merely a cloak to conceal his real mental incapacity. They named him in consequence (which certainly bespoke little love on their part) “The Dumb Ox of Sicily.” One of them more compassionate than the rest, offered to repeat with him the Master’s discourse, that thereby he might more easily keep pace with his companions in study. Almighty God permitted that one day the kind-hearted Samaritan came to a difficult passage which he could not unravel. It was now Thomas’s turn to explain the knotty question. This incident gave occasion to that famous saying of Blessed Albertus in which he predicted the future greatness of his silent scholar. In presence of the whole school, he called on young Thomas to solve the problem upon which his fellow-students had stranded. And when Thomas had done so in the most brilliant manner, Albertus gave utterance to the celebrated words: “We call this young man a dumb ox; but the bellowings of his doctrine will one day resound throughout the whole world.” St. Thomas, silent as before retired quietly and humbly to his place; not that he ignored his mental gifts, but he ascribed the honor to Him alone who had so richly endowed him. That is humility! The consciousness that of ourselves we are nothing and have nothing; that all is from God, that all honor therefrom must flow back to God—that is humility! Therefore does St. Thomas say:—“Humility, in whatever way it is taken, lowers one.” For since all good is from God, there can be no grounds for self-exaltation.
Now ask thyself what magnificent gifts are thine that thou shouldst so pride thyself upon them? In what qualification dost thou surpass St. Thomas? Should not that very question itself when applied to thee fill thee with humiliation? If thou art persuaded that all thy talents, thy excellent parts, thy skill, thy beauty, &c., are not from thyself and do not to thee belong, that God can withdraw them from thee in one moment—how, then, canst thou presume to boast? He that has nothing, that is nothing in his own eyes, that does not exalt himself, but willingly submits to others—he is truly humble. “Humility alone,” says St. Augustine, “is the foundation of the spiritual edifice.”—Hear how St. Thomas explains this: “The acquisition of the virtues is, as it were, the raising of a spiritual edifice, of which the first must be the foundation. For this acquisition a twofold operation is necessary: the removal of obstacles and the laying of the foundation by drawing near to God. The last is effected by faith; consequently, faith is, in a much higher sense than humility, the foundation of the edifice. But humility is, also, the foundation in the first signification, since it removes the principal obstacle; viz., pride, which God must ever resist. Humility suppresses the swellings of pride, makes the soul submissive and thereby susceptible of the influx of divine grace. That is the meaning of the short saying of St. Thomas at the head of to-day’s consideration: “Humility draws a man near to God.”
How often will grace remain sterile, if the mind, involved in vain-glorious darkness and puffed up by the fumes of self-conceit, attributes to itself the successful results of its good works even before it is attained! Is not that, perhaps, the cause of the ill-success of the works of many men and the evident malediction that lies upon them? Dost thou wish to deprive thy life, thy actions, of energy and merit? All thou needest for that end is, to labor with pride and self-exaltation. Do this and thou mayest be sure that all will be radically spoiled. But wouldst thou attract a blessing upon all thou dost? Then give to God alone the honor. Each will then have what belongs to him: God the glory, and thou His blessing.
SECOND POINT.—Consider further that St. Thomas far from allowing his humility to be compromised by the great fame of his genius and learning, became as years rolled on only the more deeply rooted therein. The conviction of his own weakness and of God’s unique title to everything like honor, had so firm a hold upon him that his humility was never endangered. The honor of Almighty God and the victory of the truth, were the only ends he had in view in all his writings and discourses. It is said of him that in childlike simplicity he once gave utterance to the following expressions: “I thank God that the thought of my learning, my pulpit orations, or my public disputations have never given rise to an emotion of vain-glory that could elevate my soul from the low place of humility. If, through surprise, such an emotion intruded itself, it was instantly suppressed by an act of the understanding.”—Hence arose his contempt for posts of honor in this world. Pope Clement IV., who valued him most highly, offered him different ecclesiastical distinctions. But the humble Master firmly rejected them. And when the same Pontiff sent him the Bull nominating him Archbishop of Naples, he not only declined the honor, but implored the Holy Father never again to press upon him such posts. When, at last, on his journey to the Council of Lyons, whither the Holy Father, Gregory X., had summoned him, his companion, Brother Reginald thus addressed him: “Master, you are going to the Council from which much good will accrue to the whole Church, to our Order, and to the kingdom of Sicily,”—to which Thomas replied: “God grant it!” —Reginald continued: “You and Brother Bonaventure will be raised to the Cardinalate, and each of you will thereby reflect honor upon his Order.”—After a few more remarks of the same kind, Thomas cut the conversation short with the words: “Rest assured that my position will never be other than it is at present.”
That is practical humility. It consists not merely in beautiful words, but it shows itself upon occasions in which one might easily be entrapped. What thousands of others would have grasped with both hands, the solid humility of St. Thomas determined him to refuse, in order that he might continue in his vocation, that of a poor, simple religious. Whilst many pass their whole life in aiming at distinctions, one higher than the other; whilst they are vexed and chagrined when their elevation comes too slowly for their wishes, or when others outstrip them in the race; the truly humble man is never happier than when kept in a retired position, when no honors are offered him, when he has no distinction to refuse. Now ask thyself seriously and answer the question truthfully: How dost thou stand in the struggle with that high soaring and yet grovelling desire after honor? At what art thou aiming with so much striving and eagerness? The honor of God alone, or thine own aggrandizement?—Is it hard for thee to bear a rebuff, a reprimand upon occasions in which thou believest thyself deserving of better treatment? or from persons having no right to interfere in thy affairs? Is the portrait of the humble man as depicted by Blessed Albertus Magnus, the teacher of St. Thomas, applicable to thee?—“The truly humble man fears only that some honor might be shown him; and if such a thing should happen to him, he is interiorly alarmed and distressed at it;. . . . he compares himself with no one, neither his superiors, his inferiors, nor yet with his equals, for he esteems himself the last of all. He despises no one but himself; he desires ardently to be despised by all the world, and sincerely rejoices in contempt. Such a man fears no dishonor, because he loves no honor.” O how must they be disposed, how must they live who can so openly, so energetically discuss the subject of humility, without fear of their actions giving the lie to their words! Shall I not try to reach this degree of humility and, like my holy protector, acquire the love of my own abjection? Not the position appointed me by Almighty God is incompatible with humility; but the striving after something above what God’s will has assigned me— that is incompatible with humility. To be the highest of the angels, was not for Lucifer a sin; but to wish to rise to the throne of God, was the cause of his fall into hell. The recognition of true merit and the glory consequent on the same, do not rob a man of humility; but to be in love with such recognition and such glory, would prove destructive of the virtue in question. No; I will be neither so bold nor so foolish as to usurp the rights of God. I will, in deepest humility, follow St. Thomas till death. I will imitate his self-abnegation, and beg him to assist me in my efforts.
O great St. Thomas, radiant, magnificent star of Holy Church, who wast at the same time so humble and modest, thou wast entirely free from the sting of that horrible and grievous vice which thou didst so clearly portray as the most frightful wandering, as the greatest estrangement from God, and the most deplorable of all sins! O how confused am I at the sight of thy greatness which knew so well how to humble itself! Yes, thou art the teacher of truth, for thou didst practise the truth thou didst proclaim in terms so touchingly beautiful! Humility is truth. Humility is the acknowledgment that we deserve degradation only, and that honor belongs to God alone. O help me, St. Thomas, not to comprehend something of this, truth, for it is so clear that only the insanity of pride could fail to see it; but help me to practise it, since I cannot do that without great grace. Hardly does a humiliation menace me, when I begin to shrink from it; my pride rises up; reasons are multiplied against it; and I leave no means untried, how suspicious soever they may be, in order to avert the dreaded calamity. Ah, have pity on me! Fail not to assist me as often as my stupid pride gets the mastery and leads me to behave in a manner so unworthy of a scholar of Him who was God, but who at the same time said: “Learn of Me that I am meek and humble of heart.” Full of confidence in thy assistance, O humble and yet mighty protector, I will daily practise those virtues that, for the very reason of thy greatness, shine so conspicuously in thee, O thou man of giant intellect, thou infallible teacher of the Church, thou renowned oracle of our day! O great and humble St. Thomas, make me as humble as thyself!
Prayer of the Church for the Feast of St. Thomas of Aquin.
(To be repeated after every Consideration.)
O God, who by the wonderful learning of blessed Thomas, Thy confessor, hast illustrated Thy Church, and by his virtues hast enlarged it: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may understand what he taught and in our lives follow what he practised. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Trait from the Life of St. Thomas of Aquin.
Of the astonishing humility of St. Thomas, his first biographer gives the following example: “ On one of his journeys, the saint stopped at the monastery of his Order in Bologna. Whilst walking up and down one of the corridors absorbed in meditation, a Brother from another convent and who knew not the saint approached. Having the Prior’s permission to take the first one he should happen to meet as a companion into the city, he addressed Thomas, saying “Good Brother, the Prior says that you must come with me.”—The saint bowed his head and followed him. Not being able, on account of the painful state of his feet, to keep pace with the Brother, he more than once received a reproof for his lagging, in answer to which he humbly begged pardon. The townsfolk, to whom the great teacher was known and dear, saw with amazement and compassion the renowned Master slowly and painfully following a simple lay-brother. They guessed the true state of the case, and forgave the poor brother on account of his ignorance. But when they informed him who it was that he was dragging around in such a style, he was confounded, and begged Thomas’s forgiveness, pleading his ignorance as an excuse. The townspeople made no secret of their astonishment. They questioned Thomas reverentially as to how he could humble himself so deeply? The holy Master answered: “The religious state consists in obedience, by which man subjects himself to man for God’s sake, as God subjected Himself to man for man’s sake.”—Let us see how St. Thomas judged of his own writings, of which a Pope has said: “So many articles, so many miracles!”—Shortly before his death, he suddenly discontinued his work on his great Summa. At the oft-repeated questions and solicitations of his friend and companion, Brother Reginald of Piperno, the saint, at last exclaimed: “All that I have written appears to me as so much rubbish, compared with what I have seen, and what has been revealed to me!”
Such humility is a greater proof of sanctity than all miracles could be.