Father Cantalamessa on Francis of Assisi's Humility

2nd Avent Homily: "to prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of Francis of Assisi"

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Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household. Father Cantalamessa gave the sermon today, continuing with last week's reflection on St. Francis of Assisi. Today's reflection is titled "Humility as Truth and Service in Francis of Assisi."

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Objective and Subjective Humility

Last time we saw that Francis of Assisi is a living demonstration that the most useful reform of the Church is that of the way of holiness, which always consists in a courageous return to the Gospel and which must begin from oneself. In this second meditation I would like to reflect further on an aspect of the return to the Gospel, a virtue of Francis. According to Dante Alighieri, all the glory of Francis depends on his “having made himself little,”[1] namely, on his humility. However, in what did Saint Francis’ proverbial humility consist?

In all the languages the Bible has gone through to reach us, namely Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English, the word “humility” has two fundamental meanings: one objective, which indicates in fact lowliness, littleness or poverty and one subjective, which indicates the feelingand recognition that one has of one’s own littleness. The latter is what we understand by the virtue of humility.

When Mary says in the Magnificat: “He has regarded the humility (tapeinosis) of his handmaid,” she means humility in the objective sense, not the subjective! Because of this, very appropriately the term is translated in many languages as “littleness”, not as humility. Moreover, how can one think that Mary exalts her humility and attributes God’s choice to it without by that fact alone destroying Mary’s humility? And yet at times it has been written rashly that Mary does not recognize in herself any virtue other than that of humility, as if, in this way, she did herself a great honor, and not instead a great wrong to this virtue.

The virtue of humility has an altogether special statute: it is possessed by those who think they do not  have it, and it is not possessed by those who think they have it. Jesus alone can declare himself “lowly of heart” and truly be so; this, we will see, is the unique and unrepeatable characteristic of the humility of the Man-God. Did Mary, therefore, not have the virtue of humility? She certainly did have it, and to the highest degree, but only God knew this, she did not. Precisely this, in fact, constitutes the unequaled merit, of true humility: that its perfume is received only by God, not by the one who emanates it. Saint Bernard wrote: “The true humble person wants to be regarded as vile, not proclaimed humble.”[2]

Francis’ humility is in this line. In this regard, The Little Flowers refer to a significant episode and, in its core, certainly historical.

“Once when Saint Francis was returning from the forest and from prayer, being on the way out of the forest, the one called Friar Masseo wanted to test how humble he was, and encountering him he said almost provocatively: “Why to you, why to you, why to you?” Saint Francis answered: “What is it that you want to say?” Friar Masseo said: “I say why does the whole world follow you, and every person seems to want to see you, to hear you, and to obey you? You are not a good looking man in body, you are not of great learning, you are not noble, why then does everyone want to follow you?” Hearing this, Saint Francis, altogether overjoyed in spirit […] turned to Friar Masseo and said: “Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why the whole world follows me? This I learned that the most holy eyes of God did not see among sinners any one more vile, more insufficient, or a greater sinner than me.”[3]

Humility as Truth

Francis’ humility has two sources of illumination, one of a theological nature and one of a Christological nature. Let us reflect on the first. We find in the Bible acts of humility that do not come from man, from the consideration of his misery or his own sin, but which have as their sole reason God and his holiness. Such is Isaiah’s exclamation, “I am a man of unclean lips,” in face of the sudden manifestation of the glory and holiness of God in the Temple (Isaiah 6:5 f); such, also is Peter’s cry to Jesus after the miraculous catch: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

We are before essential humility, that of the creature who becomes conscious of himself in the presence of God. As long as a person measures himself with himself, with others or with society, he will never have the exact idea of what he is; he is lacking the measure. “What an infinite accent,” wrote Kierkegaard, “falls on the I the moment it obtains God as measure!”[4] Francis had this humility in an eminent way. A saying that he repeated often was: “What a man is before God, that he is, and nothing more.”[5]

The Little Flowers recount that one night Friar Leo wanted to watch from afar what Francis was doing during his night prayer in the forest of La Verna and from a distance he heard him murmur some words for a long time. The next day the Saint called him and, after having reproved him courteously for having contravened his order, revealed to him the content of his prayer:

“You know, friar sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words that you heard, my soul was shown two lights, one of information and knowledge of myself, the other of information and knowledge of the Creator. When I said: Who are you, O most sweet God of mine? Then I was in a light of contemplation, in which I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power of God; and when I said: Who am I? I was in the light of contemplation, in which I saw the sad depth of my vileness and misery?”[6]

It was what Saint Augustine asked God and which he considered the height of all wisdom: “Noverim me, noverim te. Let me know myself and let me know You; let me know myself to humble myself and let me know You to love You.”[7]

Friar Leo’s episode is certainly embellished, as always in The Little Flowers, but the content corresponds perfectly with the idea that Francis had of himself and of God. Proof of it is the beginning of the Canticle of creatures with the infinite distance that he puts between God, “Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord,” to whom is owed praise, glory, honor and blessing, and the miserable mortal who is not even worthy of “mentioning,” that is of pronouncing his name.

In this light, which I have called theological, humility appears to us essentially as truth. “I asked myself one day,” wrote Saint Teresa of Avila, “why the Lord so loves humility and suddenly there came to my mind, without any reflection on my part, that it must be because he is total Truth, and humility is truth.”[8]

It is a light that does not humiliate but, on the contrary, gives immense joy and exalts. To be humble in fact does not mean to be unhappy with oneself or to recognize one’s own misery, or even one’s littleness. It is to look at God before oneself and to measure the abyss that separates the finite from the infinite. The more one realizes this, the more one becomes humble. Then one begins to enjoy one’s own nothingness, because it is thanks to it that a face can be offered to God whose littleness and misery has fascinated the heart of the Trinity from eternity.

Angela of Foligno, a great disciple of the Poverello, whom Pope Francis has recently proclaimed Saint, exclaimed when close to death: “O nothingness unknown, O nothingness unknown. The soul cannot have a better vision in this world than to contemplate its nothingness and dwell in it as in a prison cell.”[9] There is a secret in this counsel, a truth that is experienced by testing it. One then discovers that this cell really exists and that one can really enter it every time one wishes. It consists in the quiet and tranquil sentiment of being nothing before God, but a nothing loved by Him!

When one is inside the cell of this luminous prison, one no longer sees one’s neighbor’s defects, or they are seen in another light. One understands that it is possible, with grace and exercise, to realize what the Apostle says, which at first glance seems excessive, namely, to “consider all others better than oneself” (cf. Philippians 2:3), or at least one understands how this was possible for the saints.

To be locked in that prison is, therefore, altogether different from being locked in oneself; instead, it is to open oneself to others, to being, to the objectivity of things, the opposite of what the enemies of Christian humility have always thought. It is to close oneself to egoism, not in egoism. It is the victory over one of the evils that modern psychology also judges ruinous for the human person: narcissism. In that cell, moreover, the enemy does not come in. One day Anthony the Great had a vision; he saw in an instant all the infinite snares of the enemy spread out over the earth and, moaning, he said: “Who then will be able to avoid all these snares?” And he heard a voice answer him: “Anthony, humility!”[10]. “Nothing, writes the author of the Imitation of Christ, will succeed in puffing up one who is firmly fixed in God.”[11]

Humility as Service of Love

We have talked about humility as the truth of the creature before God. Paradoxically, however, what most fills Francis’ soul with wonder is not God’s greatness but his humility. In the Praises of God Most High, which are handwritten by him and kept in Assisi, among God’s perfections– “You are Holy, You are Strong. You are Triune and One. You are Love, Charity. You are Wisdom …” -- at a certain point Francis inserts an unheard of: “You are humility!” It is not a title put there by mistake. Francis grasped a most profound truth about God which should also fill us with wonder.

God is humility because He is love. In face of human creatures, God finds himself lacking in every capacity not only constrictive but also defensive. If human beings choose, as they have done, to reject his love, He cannot intervene with authority to impose Himself on them. He can do nothing other than respect the free choice of men. One can reject Him, eliminate Him: He will not defend Himself, He will let them do it. Or better, his way of defending himself and of defending men against their very annihilation, will be that of loving again and always, eternally. By its nature love creates dependence and dependence creates humility. So it is, also, mysteriously, in God.

Love furnishes, therefore, the key to understand God’s humility: one needs little power to show off, instead one needs a lot to put oneself aside, to cancel oneself. God is this unlimited power of concealment of himself and as such He reveals himself in the Incarnation. One has the visible manifestation of God’s humility by contemplating Christ who kneels before his disciples to wash their feet – and they were, we can imagine it, dirty feet -- and even more so, when, reduced to the most radical impotence on the cross, He continues to love, without ever condemning.

Francis grasped this very close connection between God’s humility and the Incarnation. Here are some of his fiery words:

“Look, he humbles himself every day, as when from the royal seat he descended into the womb of the Virgin; every day He himself comes to us in humble appearance; every day He descends from the bosom of the Father on the altar in the hands of the priest.”[12] “O sublime humility! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, so humiliates himself as to hide himself for our salvation, under the little appearance of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and open your hearts before Him.”[13]

Thus we have discovered the second reason for Francis’ humility: the example of Christ. It is the same reason that Paul indicated to the Philippians when he recommended that they have the same sentiments of Christ Jesus who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:5.8). Before Paul, it was Jesus himself who invited the disciples to imitate his humility: “Learn from me, who am gentle and humble in heart!” (Matthew 11:29).

In what thing, we could ask ourselves, does Jesus tell us to imitate his humility? In what was Jesus humble? Running through the Gospels we do not find even the most minimal admission of fault on Jesus’ lips, not when he converses with men, or when he converses with the Father. This – said incidentally -- in one of the most hidden but also most convincing proofs, of the divinity of Christ and of the absolute unicity of his conscience. In no saint, in no great one in history and in no founder of religion, does one find such an innocent conscience.

All acknowledge, more or less, having committed some error or of having something to be forgiven, at least by God. Gandhi, for instance, had a very acute awareness of having on some occasions taken erroneous positions; he also had his regrets. Jesus never did. He could say addressing his adversaries: “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). Jesus proclaims he is “Teacher and Lord” (cf. John 13:13), to be more than Abraham, than Moses, than Jonah, than Solomon. Where, then, is Jesus’ humility to be able to say: “learn from me who am humble?”

Here we discover something important. Humility does not consist principally in being little -- one can be little without being humble; nor does it consist principally in feeling that oneself is little, because one can feel oneself little and be so really and this would be objectivity, but not yet humility -- without counting that feeling oneself little and insignificant could stem from an inferiority complex and lead to withdrawal into oneself and to despair, rather than to humility. Therefore humility, per se, in the most perfect degree, is not in being little, it is not in feeling that oneself is little or proclaiming oneself little. It is in making oneself little, and not out of some necessity or personal utility, but out of love, to “raise” others.

Thus was Jesus’ humility; He made himself so little, in fact, to the point of “annulling” himself for us. Jesus’ humility is the humility that descends from God and that has its supreme model in God, not in man. In the position in which He finds himself, God cannot “elevate himself”; nothing exists above Him. If God comes out of Himself and does something outside the Trinity, this cannot be but a lowering of himself and a making himself little; in other words, He will only be able to be humility, or as some Greek Fathers said, synkatabasis, that is, condescendence.

Saint Francis makes of “Sister Water” the symbol of humility, describing it as “useful, humble, precious and chaste.” Water, in fact, never “elevates” itself, never “ascends,” but always “descends,” until it has reached the lowest point. Steam rises and that is why it is the traditional symbol of pride and vanity; water descends and is, therefore, the symbol of humility.

Now we know what Jesus’ word means: “Learn from me who am humble.” It is an invitation to make oneself little out of love, to wash, as he did, the feet of our brothers. However, in Jesus we also see the seriousness of this choice. It is not in fact about descending and making oneself little every now and then, as a king who, in his generosity, every so often deigns to come down among the people and perhaps, also, to serve them in something. Jesus makes himself “little,” as “he made himself flesh,” that is permanently, to the end. He chooses to belong to the category of the little ones and the humble.

This new face of humility is summarized in one word: service. One day – we read in the Gospel – the disciples discussed among themselves who was “the greatest”; then Jesus, “sat down” (so as to give greater solemnity to the lesson he was about to impart) called the Twelve to himself and said to them: “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He who wishes to be “first” must be “last,” that is, must descend, must lower himself. But then he explains immediately what he intends by the last: he must be the “servant” of all. The humility proclaimed by Jesus is, therefore, service. In Matthew’s Gospel, this lesson of Jesus is corroborated with an example: “even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).

A Humble Church

Let us draw some practical considerations on the virtue of humility in all its manifestations, whether in relations with God or in relations with men. We must not be deluded thinking we have attained humility just because the word of God has led us to discover our nothingness and has shown us that it must be translated into fraternal service. The point to which we have attained humility is seen when the initiative passes from us to others, namely when it is no longer we who recognize our defects and wrongs, but others who do so; when we are not only capable of telling ourselves the truth, but also of gladly letting others do so. Prior to acknowledging himself before Friar Matteo as the vilest of men, Francis had accepted, gladly and for a long time, to be derided, held by friends, relatives and the whole country of Assisi as being ungrateful, exalted, one who would never have done anything good in life.

The point we are at in the struggle against pride is seen, in other words, by the way we react, externally or internally, when we are contradicted, corrected, criticized or left aside. To pretend to kill one’s pride by striking it oneself, without anyone intervening from outside, is like using one’s arm to punish oneself: one will never do oneself harm. It is as if a doctor wished to remove a tumor from himself on his own.

When I seek to receive glory from a man for something I say or do, it is almost certain that he who is before me seeks to receive glory from me because of the way he listens and the way he responds. And thus it is that everyone seeks his own glory and no one obtains it and if, perchance, he obtains it, it is nothing but “vainglory,” that is, empty glory, destined to be dissolved in smoke with death. However, the effect is equally terrible; in fact Jesus attributed the impossibility of believing to the search for one’s glory. He said to the Pharisees: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the one God?” (John 5:44).

When we find ourselves snared again in thoughts and aspirations of human glory, we must throw into the mixture of such thoughts, as a burning torch, the word that Jesus himself used and that he left us: “I do not seek my own glory!” (John 8:50). The struggle for humility lasts the whole of life and extends to every aspect of it. Pride is able to nourish itself, be it of evil or good; in fact, as opposed to what happens with every other vice, the good, not the evil, is the preferred terrain of cultivation for this terrible “virus.” The philosopher Pascal wrote wittily:

“Vanity has such deep roots in man’s heart that a soldier, a servant of armies, a cook, a porter, boasts and pretends he has his admirers and the philosophers themselves desire him. And those who write against vainglory aspire to boast of having written well, and those who read them, boast of having read them; and I, who write this, nourish perhaps the same desire; and also, perhaps, those who read me.”[14]

So that man “will not rise up in pride,” God often fixes him to the ground with a sort of anchor; He puts beside him, as He did to Paul, a “messenger of Satan to harass him,” “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We do not know exactly what this “thorn in the flesh” was for the Apostle, but we know well what it is for us! Everyone who wants to follow the Lord and serve the Church has it. They are humiliating situations through which one is recalled constantly, sometimes night and day, to the harsh reality of what we are. It can be a defect, a sickness, a weakness, an impotence, which the Lord leaves us, despite all our supplications; a persistent and humiliating temptation, perhaps, in fact, a temptation of pride; a person with whom one is constrained to live and that, despite the rectitude of both parties, has the power to expose our fragility, to demolish our presumption.

However, humility is not a private virtue. There is a humility that must shine in the Church as institution and people of God. If God is humility, the Church must also be humility; if Christ served, the Church must also serve, and serve out of love. For too long the Church as a whole has represented before the world the truth of Christ, but perhaps she has not represented sufficiently the humility of Christ. Yet it is with humility, better than with any apologetics, that hostilities and prejudices are placated in her confrontations and the way is smoothed for the reception of the Gospel.

There is an episode of Manzoni’s The Betrothed which contains a profound psychological and evangelical truth. Friar Christopher, having finished his novitiate, decided to ask forgiveness publicly to the parents of the man that, before he became a friar, he killed in a duel. The family aligns itself, forming a sort of Caudine Forks, so that the gesture would be the most humiliating possible for the friar and of greatest satisfaction for the family’s pride. But when they saw the young friar proceed with his head bowed, kneeling before the brother of the man killed and asking for forgiveness, the arrogance fell, they were the ones who felt embarrassed and asked for pardon, so that in the end all crowded around the friar to kiss his hand and to commend themselves to his prayers.[15] These are the miracles of humility.

In the prophet Zephaniah God says: “I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:12). This word is still timely and perhaps the success of the evangelization in which the Church is committed will depend on it.

Now it is I who, before ending, must remind myself of a saying that was dear to Saint Francis. He usually repeated: “Charles emperor, Orlando, Oliviero, all the paladins reported a glorious and memorable victory … However, there are now many that, only with the telling of their feat, want to receive honors and glory from other men.”[16] He used this example to say that the saints practiced the virtues and that others seek glory only by recounting them.[17]

So that I will not also be of their number, I make an effort to put into practice the counsel given by an ancient desert Father, Isaac of Nineveh, to one who was constrained by the duty to speak of spiritual things, which he had not yet attained in his own life: “Speak, he said, as one who belongs to the class of disciples and not with authority, after having humiliated your soul and making yourself smaller than any of your listeners.” With this spirit, Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, I have dared to speak to you of humility.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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1 Paradiso XI, 111.

2 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle, XVI, 10 (PL 183, 853).

3 Little Flowers, chapter X.

4 S. Kierkegaard, The Mortal Sickness, II, chapter 1, in Works, published by C. Fabro, Sansoni, Florence1972, pp. 662 f.

5 Admonitions, XIX (FF 169); cf. also St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, VI, 1 (FF 1103).

6 Considerations of the Sacred Stigmata, III (FF 1916).

7 St. Augustine, Soliloquies, I. 1, 3; II, 1, 1 (PL 32, 870.885).

8 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, VI dim., chapter 10.

9 The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, Quaracchi, 1985, p. 737.

10 Apophtegmata Patrum, Antonio 7: PG 65, 77.

11 Imitation of Christ, II, chapter 10.

12 Admonitions, I (FF 144).e

13 Letter to the Whole Order (FF 221).

14 B. Pascal, Pensees, n. 150 Br.

15 A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, chapter IV.

16 Admonitions VI (FF 155).

17 Celano, Second Life, 72 (FF 1626).