Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 4

Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV. On Greater Humility.

ELISHA bade the poor widow “borrow vessels, even empty vessels not a
few, and pour oil into all those vessels;” [65] and so in order to
receive God’s Grace in our hearts, they must be as empty vessels–not
filled with self-esteem. The swallow with its sharp cry and keen glance
has the power of frightening away birds of prey, and for that reason
the dove prefers it to all other birds, and lives surely beside
it;–even so humility drives Satan away, and cherishes the gifts and
graces of the Holy Spirit within us, and for that reason all the
Saints–and especially the King of Saints and His Blessed Mother–have
always esteemed the grace of humility above all other virtues.

We call that vainglory which men take to themselves, either for what is
not in them, or which being in them is not their own, or which being in
them and their own yet is not worthy of their self-satisfaction. For
instance, noble birth, favour of great men, popular applause, all these
are things nowise belonging to ourselves, but coming from our
forefathers, or the opinion of others. Some people are proud and
conceited because they ride a fine horse, wear a feather in their hat,
and are expensively dressed, but who can fail to see their folly, or
that if any one has reason to be proud over such things, it would be
the horse, the bird, and the tailor! Or what can be more contemptible
than to found one’s credit on a horse, a plume, or a ruff? Others again
pride themselves upon their dainty moustaches, their well-trimmed beard
or curled hair, their white hands, or their dancing, singing and the
like: but is it not a petty vanity which can seek to be esteemed for
any such trivial and frivolous matters? Then again, some look for the
world’s respect and honour because they have acquired some smatterings
of science, expecting all their neighbours to listen and yield to them,
and such men we call pedants. Others make great capital of their
personal beauty, and imagine that every one is lost in admiration of
it; but all this is utterly vain, foolish and impertinent, and the
glory men take to themselves for such matters must be called vain,
childish and frivolous.

You may test real worth as we test balm, which is tried by being
distilled in water, and if it is precipitated to the bottom, it is
known to be pure and precious. So if you want to know whether a man is
really wise, learned, generous or noble, see if his life is moulded by
humility, modesty and submission. If so, his gifts are genuine; but if
they are only surface and showy, you may be sure that in proportion to
their demonstrativeness so is their unreality. Those pearls which are
formed amid tempest and storm have only an outward shell, and are
hollow within; and so when a man’s good qualities are fed by pride,
vanity and boasting, they will soon have nothing save empty show,
without sap, marrow or substance.

Honour, rank and dignity are like the saffron, which never thrives so
well as when trodden under foot. Beauty only attracts when it is free
from any such aim. Self-conscious beauty loses its charm, and learning
becomes a discredit and degenerates into pedantry, when we are puffed
up by it.

Those who are punctilious about rank, title or precedence, both lay
themselves open to criticism and degradation, and also throw contempt
on all such things; because an honour which is valuable when freely
paid, is worthless when sought for or exacted. When the peacock opens
his showy tail, he exhibits the ugliness of his body beneath; and many
flowers which are beautiful while growing, wither directly we gather
them. And just as men who inhale mandragora from afar as they pass,
find it sweet, while those who breathe it closely are made faint and
ill by the same, so honour may be pleasant to those who merely taste it
as they pass, without seeking or craving for it, but it will become
very dangerous and hurtful to such as take delight in and feed upon it.

An active effort to acquire virtue is the first step towards goodness;
but an active effort to acquire honour is the first step towards
contempt and shame. A well-conditioned mind will not throw away its
powers upon such sorry trifles as rank, position or outward forms–it
has other things to do, and will leave all that to meaner minds. He who
can find pearls will not stop to pick up shells; and so a man who aims
at real goodness will not be keen about outward tokens of honour.
Undoubtedly every one is justified in keeping his own place, and there
is no want of humility in that so long as it is done simply and without
contention. Just as our merchant-ships coming from Peru with gold and
silver often bring apes and parrots likewise, because these cost but
little and do not add to the weight of a cargo, so good men seeking to
grow in grace can take their natural rank and position, so long as they
are not engrossed by such things, and do not involve themselves in
anxiety, contention or ill-will on their account. I am not speaking
here of those whose position is public, or even of certain special
private persons whose dignity may be important. In all such cases each
man must move in his own sphere, with prudence and discretion, together
with charity and courtesy.

[65] 2 Kings iv. 3, 4.