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Examples and explanations of practicing humility

8 min • Digitized on August 23, 2021

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 111
By St. Francis de Sales

I pass on further, and tell you, Philothea, that in all, and through all, you should love your own abjection. But you will ask me, what is it to love our own abjection?

In Latin abjection signifies humility, and humility signifies abjection; so that when Our Lady, in her sacred canticle, says that all generations shall call her blessed, because our Lord had regarded the humility of his handmaid, her meaning is, that our Lord had graciously looked down on her abjection and lowliness in order to heap his graces and favours upon her.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the virtue of humility and our abjection, for our abjection is the lowliness, meanness, and baseness that is in us without our being aware of it; whereas the virtue of humility is a true knowledge, and a voluntary acknowledgment of our abjection.

Now, the main point of this humility consists in being willing, not only to acknowledge our abjection, but in loving and delighting in it; and this, not through want of courage and generosity, but for the greater exaltation of the Divine Majesty, and that we may hold our neighbour in greater estimation than ourselves.

To this I exhort you; and that you may comprehend me the better, I tell you that among the evils which we suffer, some are abject, and others honourable; many can easily accommodate themselves to such evils as are honourable, but scarcely anyone to such as are abject.

You see a devout old hermit covered with rags and shivering with cold; everyone honours his tattered clothes and compassionates his sufferings; but if a poor tradesman or a gentleman is in a similar condition, the world despises and scoffs at him; and thus you see that their poverty is abject.

A religious man receives a sharp reproof from his superior, or a child from his father with meekness, and everyone calls this mortification, obedience, and wisdom; but should a gentleman or lady suffer the like from another, although it were for the love of God, it is then called cowardice and want of spirit.

Behold, then, here another evil that is abject. One has a canker in his arm, another in his face; the first has only the disease, but the other, together with the discase, has contempt, disgrace, and abjection.

I say, then, that we must not only love the evil, which is the business of patience, but also embrace the abjection by virtue of humility.

There are, moreover, virtues which are abject and virtues which are honourable. Patience, meekness, simplicity, and even humility itself, are virtues which worldlings consider as mean and abject; whilst, on the contrary, they hold prudence, fortitude, and liberality in the highest estimation.

There are also actions of one and the same virtue, some of which are despised, and others are honoured; to give alms and forgive injuries are both of them acts of charity; yet the first is honoured whilst the latter is despised, in the eyes of the world.

A young lady or gentleman who refuses to join in the disorders of a frivolous company, or to talk, play, dance, drink, or dress as the rest do, incurs their scorn and censure, and their modesty is termed bigotry and affectation: to love this is to love our own abjection.

Behold an abjection of another kind. We go to visit the sick. If I am sent to the most miserable, it will be to me an abjection according to the world, for which reason I will love it. If I am sent to a person of quality, it is an abjection, according to the spirit; for there is not so much virtue nor merit in it, and therefore I will love this abjection.

One falls in the midst of the street, and, besides his fall, receives shame: we must love this abjection.

There are even faults which have no other ill in them but the abjection; and humility does not require that we should deliberately commit them, but that we should not vex ourselves when we have committed them.

Such are certain follies, incivilities, and inadvertences, which, as we ought to avoid them before they are committed, for the sake of civility and discretion, so, when they are committed, we ought to be content with the abjection we meet with, and accept it willingly, for the sake of practising humility.

I say yet more: should I through passion or anger have spoken any unbecoming words, by which God and my neighbour may have been offended, I will repent and be sorry for the offence, and endeavour to make the best reparation I can, but yet will admit the abjection and the contempt which it has brought upon me; and, could the one be separated from the other, I would most cheerfully cast away the sin, and humbly retain the abjection.

But though we love the abjection that follows the evil, yet we must not neglect, by fit and lawful means, to redress the evil that caused it, especially when it is of importance.

For example, should I have some disagreeable disease in my face, I will endeavour to have it cured, but not with the intention that I should forget the abjection I received by it.

If I have been guilty of some folly which has given no one offence, I will make no apology for it; because, although it were an offence, yet it is not permanent! I could not, therefore, excuse it, but only with the view to rid myself of the abjection, which would not be agreeable to humility.

But if, through inadvertence, or otherwise, I should have offended or scandalised anyone, I will repair the offence by some true excuse, because the evil is permanent, and charity obliges me to remove it.

Besides, it happens sometimes that charity requires that we should remove the abjection for the good of our neighbour, to whom our reputation is necessary; but in such a case, though we remove the abjection from before our neighbour’s eyes, to prevent scandal, yet we must carefully shut it up in our heart for its edification.

But would you know, Philothea, which are the best abjections, I tell you plainly, that those are the most proiitable to our souls, and most acceptable to God, which befall us by accident, or by our condition of life, because we have not chosen them ourselves, but receive them as sent from God, whose choice is always better than our own.

But were we to choose any, we should prefer the greatest; and those that are esteemed such as are most contrary to our inclinations, provided that they are conformable to our vocation; for, as I have already said, our own choice and election spoil or lessen almost all our virtues.

Oh! who will enable us to say, “I have chosen to be abject in the house of God, rather than to dwell in the palaces of sinners” (Ps. lxxxi. 11). No one, certainly, Philothea, but He who exalts us, lived and died in such a manner as to become the reproach of men and the abjection of the people.

I have said many things to you, which may seem hard in theory, but believe me, they will be sweeter than sugar or honey when you put them in practice.

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