There is a familiar spiritual maxim that goes something like this—“the saints all know they are sinners, but the sinners all think they’re saints.” The lesson of the saying is one of humility and like all things related to this most necessary virtue we tend to like pithy sayings like this. But if we are honest, we will admit that we don’t actually believe this to be true. Perhaps compared to the great saints, our sins are great, but our sins are relatively small compared to most people. Also, could it be true that all the saints knew they were sinners? For example, Chesterton tells of St. Thomas Aquinas and how the priest “listening to the dying man’s confession, he fancied suddenly that he was listening to the first confession of a child of five.” We could multiply the examples of saints with similar confessions, but the point is that if they were honest they could hardly label themselves as sinners.
The confusion comes in the use of the term “sinners.” It is not so much in their actions that the saints see themselves as sinners, but in their capacity. In other words, they are absolutely convinced that they are capable of committing any and all horrible acts. Not only that, they are convinced that given different circumstances they would in fact do so. It is only by the grace of God that they did not. And therein we find their great humility.
This is why the most humble people are also the most merciful and slowest to judge. When they meet someone who is in the depths of sin, they realize that the situation could very easily be reversed. In fact they realize that given the concrete circumstances of the other person’s life, they probably would have done worse. An honest person would see that it is by chance that it is the way it is. A person who is striving for holiness will realize that it was God’s grace that kept them from being in those circumstances and it is He who has preserved them. By repeatedly recognizing this, the saints come to be more and more dependent upon God’s grace and less and less “capable” of sinning. This is Chesterton’s point about Aquinas’ confession—it was the confession of a five year old because the Dumb Ox was humble.
In a world marked by the cult of celebrity, we are scandalized regularly by the actions of politicians, athletes and actors. We like to read about their indiscretions and downfalls. But I wonder how quick we would be to do so if we were truly humble. These are real people who live in a vastly different world than the rest of us do with a set of temptations that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Are we absolutely sure that given the power politicians have, that we wouldn’t actually do worse things than them? Are we absolutely sure that given the number of women who throw themselves at professional athletes that we could remain chaste? Instead we often sit in judgment based upon our own situation. It is easy to say you wouldn’t be corrupted by power when you have none. It is easy to say you would be faithful to your spouse when the worst you deal with is a neighbor who is a little flirty. It is only humility that will save us from the glamour of the world so much so that we will thank God for preserving us. This is why all the saints also desired to be hidden—they saw how easy others were trapped and knew they would easily get pulled in as well.
The key then to humility is the recognition of this capacity for depravity. But it is not just in moments of honesty about our situation that we realize this. It can also be in moments when we are able to glimpse the depravity in our own hearts that usually comes about through suffering some humiliation. For many years, I would sit in judgment of other people about the behavior of their kids. Thanks be to God it mostly remained an interior attitude, but there were many times when I asked “why won’t they control their kid?” It never even occurred to me that there were, in fact, times when you can’t control your kid. It never occurred to me, until that is, I was on the receiving end of that and actually had a child of my own that at times simply could not be controlled. Now there are a lot of people who are supportive and understanding, but for the most part I receive stares, direct judgments on my parenting, and parenting advice. It is hard not to experience that as hatred and see them as an enemy. I could even lash out at them, but I know they are merely expressing what was in my heart for many years. It took being unfairly judged for me to stop condemning in my heart. It took humiliations for me to grasp that without humility I would never be free from the trappings of my own heart.
The point is that until we learn humility and see it as truly good for us we will never experience true spiritual growth. We will never become saints without it. Humility is the habit of recognizing our total dependence upon God to save us from ourselves. It is the only weapon we have with which to fight ourselves and our own pride. For many of us, the daily cross that we must pick up and carry is our own weakness. Humility is the fulcrum by which we raise this cross and carry it.
It doesn’t just take moments of humiliation to grow in this virtue. St. Thomas says that humility is truth and what he means by this is that our growth in humility is proportional to our love of the truth. This idea is captured perfectly in Adam Smith’s companion to The Wealth of Nations, called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He centers the treatise on what he calls the moral judgements of an “impartial spectator” which is really the virtue of humility. According to Smith the key to happiness is to be loved for being truly lovely. His point is that while we may seek the esteem of others, we should do so based only upon the truth of what we are. We should not seek to be praised for those things that we are not, but only for the things that the impartial spectator of ourselves would say we are.
How easy it is then to grow in humility simply by ceasing to pretend to be what we are not; to accept praise graciously, but only for those things that are true. We don’t need to blow trumpets for our faults, only cease to pretend they are not there. To love the truth so much that you don’t want others to believe good things about you that are false.
Of course it is this relation to the truth that ultimately causes the devil to flee in the face of humility and thus it is a great spiritual weapon. But in order to use this weapon we must first understand how it works. To quote CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape tells Wormwood that the key to destroying humility is to:
…make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible. To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims.
Holiness really is circumstantial, but humility is the only path we can take to set those circumstances in our favor.