Grace: To choose what is for God’s greater glory and the salvation of my soul.
Reflection: This meditation on the three forms of humility is an excellent meditation for Lent. At the beginning of Lent we head out to the desert for forty days to pray and prepare spiritually for the coming celebration of Easter. We do this in imitation of Christ who, compelled by the Holy Spirit, went into the desert where he prayed, fasted, and withstood the temptations of the Enemy. In his description of the three forms of humility, St. Ignatius uses language reminiscent of the temptations Christ faced in the desert to describe the temptations that can be withstood by persons who possess the first two forms of humility. Ignatius says that the first form of humility is found in the person who will not consider committing a single mortal sin, not even in exchange for all the created things in the world or to save his earthly life. Likewise, the second form of humility is found in the person who cannot be tempted to commit even a single venial sin—not even if doing so would make him master of all creation or save his life on earth.
In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, we meditated on mortal and venial sin and the way that sin puts us out of step with God’s plan. We noted that even venial sin enervates our spiritual life and can eventually dispose us to disregard God’s law and commit mortal sin. Finally, we meditated on hell with the goal in mind of cultivating a healthy fear of hell. The idea was that such a fear could help us to avoid sin during those times when we don’t keenly sense God’s love or the times when His commandments seem particularly difficult to us. Certainly sin is such a destructive force that it is worth avoiding at all cost, even if it be through the motivation of fear of punishment rather than out of a motive of love.
John—the Beloved Disciple—tells us, however, that perfect love casts out fear. As we have accompanied Jesus during the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises, we have been begging for the grace of an interior knowledge of the God who became man for us in order that we might follow Him more closely and love Him more dearly. If you made these exercises well, then hopefully your heart was touched by a new understanding of our Lord and the depth of His love. The idea is that as we make progress in the spiritual life, it will no longer be a motivation of fear of punishment that spurs us on but abiding love in faithful discipleship which will guide us in doing the Lord’s will.
St. Ignatius sets the bar very high with the second and third forms of humility. The second requires perfect indifference and readiness to embrace God’s will, “feeling no inclination to have riches rather than poverty, to want honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long rather than a short life,” as well as such a strong aversion to sin that one would never willingly commit even a single venial sin. The third form is still more perfect and represents complete conversion to Christ such that, “in order to imitate and be more like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobrium with Christ replete with it rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.”
Neither the second nor the third forms can be attained through sheer force of will. These dispositions represent the call to holiness and thus require one to abide in God’s love and be transformed by His grace. The only way to grow in humility is to be receptive to God’s grace and strive everyday to do His will. Only by turning away from self-love and embracing the Cross can one walk this difficult path.
As we contemplate these three forms of humility, we should keep in mind how remarkable each is in its own right. The first form is remarkable because even during the times when we do not strongly sense God’s consolation or love, he nevertheless is always providing us with the grace necessary and sufficient to avoid sin. We couldn’t even overcome the grossest temptations to sin, if it weren’t for the essential grace that God gives us. The second form is remarkable because it represents the freedom to be completely ready to serve God in whatever way is more pleasing to Him. If we attain the second form of humility, we will have overcome all inordinate attachments which could cloud our judgment or dissuade us from doing God’s will. Finally, the third form of humility is remarkable because it spurs us on to never settle for mediocrity in the service of God but to take on ever greater sacrifices and renunciations for the love of Christ.
Wherever we find ourselves in this moment in respect to the three degrees of humility, we can pray for the grace that, if it be God’s will, He might call us to the next degree and toward an ever more perfect assimilation to His divine will.
Questions: Where do you find yourself at this time in respect to the three forms or degrees of humility? How is God’s grace at work in you helping you to grow in aversion for sin and to deepen your love for Him? In what ways is He calling you to embrace the Cross and to follow Him more closely? How far are you willing to go in His service?