Elisha bade the poor widow “borrow vessels, even empty vessels not a few, and pour oil into all those vessels;” (1) 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.