CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
31 Jan. 1 June. 1 Oct.
The third degree of humility is, that a man for the love of God submit himself to his superior in all obedience; imitating the Lord, of Whom the apostle saith: “He was made obedient even unto death.”
Pro Dei amore. These three words of the third degree of humility resume the Little Way of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. For our 24 year old Doctor of the Church, even the smallest things done for the love of God acquire in His eyes an immense value for the praise of His glory and for the good of souls. Conversely, great things, even spectacular ascetical exploits, if not done for the love of God, “are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Isaias 40:15).
There is, alas, a certain approach to holiness that would make it consist in winning points for excellence. This is the approach of the man who cannot stop looking at himself, even when he protests that he is doing something for God, or especially when he thinks he is doing something for God. Such a man wants to watch his own performance. He admires his own perfections. He is too wrapped up in himself to be transported out of himself and into God by love. He is so important in his own eyes that he cannot see past himself.
Saint Thérèse, after her miraculous conversion in the night of Christmas 1886—most of you are, I think, familiar with the incident— was delivered from the morbid self-absorption that had dogged her since the age of four, the time of her mother’s death. Forgive my using a colloquialism to describe what happened, but the expression says it well: Thérèse “got over herself.” The Child Jesus did in the twinkling of an eye what Thérèse could not do for herself: she emerged from an almost pathological sensitivity. She was freed from the impulse to look at herself and to listen to herself. She cast off the fetters of the confining and calculating perfectionism that so marked French Catholic middle-class piety in the 19th century. She was delivered all at once from preoccupation with the impression she was making and from the need to win approval. One thing remained for Thérèse: the certainty that she was loved and a desire to love God to the point of becoming, as she herself says, “love in the heart of the Church.”
Why did Our Lord give such a transforming grace to Saint Thérèse? Most of us struggle with this things well past adolescence, and sometimes even into our thirties and forties, or even later. At the time of this grace of conversion, Thérèse was only days away from her 14th birthday. She had only ten years to live. It was as if God, seeing the course of the life that, in His Providence, lay before her, accelerated her emotional and spiritual growth. By a sudden inbreaking of grace, God did for Thérèse what those of us who are given longer lives, attain over many years and usually by suffering heartbreak, disappointment, infirmity, and life-changing losses.
Little Thérèse Martin—endearingly neurotic, self-centred, and hemmed in by pious convention—became Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. Instead of scrutinizing her self in the looking glass from which she could not move away, Thérèse gazed into the Face of the Infant Christ and then into the Face of the Suffering Christ until, at length, she had eyes only for Him.
There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him: despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not. (Isaias 53:2-3)
Submission to a superior in all obedience, in imitation of the Suffering Christ, obedient even unto death, is impossible apart from the love of God. The love of God comes silently, gently, but surely to the man who looks into the Face of the Infant Christ, into the Face of the Suffering Christ, and into the brightness of the Face hidden in the Sacred Host. The monk who does this will, as Saint Benedict says in the 12th degree of humility, “presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear.”