St. Francis of Assisi Teaches a Lesson in Humility

‘The humble person is perceived as someone who gives up, someone defeated, someone who has nothing to say to the world. But this … represents God’s own way of acting.’ —Pope Benedict XVI

Jan van Eyck, “Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” c. 1431
Jan van Eyck, “Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” c. 1431 (photo: Public Domain)

Given a new heart, a Christian is stripped of his prideful pretense; his soul is laid bare. And, without any “visible means” of false support, he turns to God, the Invisible Supporter, and thus becomes a saint.

Those so blessed personify humility and compassion. A saint exemplifies a type of joy known as hyperhedonia, which is the pleasure derived from activities that are normally profitless, thankless, uninteresting and tedious, such as serving the poor. Saints imbued by God’s grace can do extraordinary things — things normal human beings couldn’t do on their own. With God’s grace, our actions can inspire hope, confidence and generosity.

If these phenomena aren’t miraculous and, in fact, commonplace, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? A person who is comfortable with exactly how he is doesn’t need to change and thus gives up any possibility of humility and compassion.

Becoming a saint requires an enormous sacrifice. It requires the surrender of something we hold precious: our self-love. But the advantage of giving up narcissism is that one is no longer burdened by it and is thus freed. We become free by sacrificing ourselves.

A short story from The Little Flowers of St. Francis describes perfectly the spirit of humility and compassion that must exemplify a Christian saint:

One winter day St. Francis was coming to St. Mary of the Angels from Perugia with Brother Leo and the bitter cold made them suffer keenly. St. Francis called to Brother Leo, who was walking a bit ahead of him and he said: ‘Brother Leo, even if the Friars Minor in every country give a great example of holiness and integrity and good edification, nevertheless write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.’
And when he had walked on a bit, St. Francis called him again, saying: ‘Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk and restores speech to the dumb and what is still more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days, write that perfect joy is not in that.’
And going on a bit, St. Francis cried out again in a strong voice: ‘Brother Leo, if a Friar Minor knew all languages and all sciences and Scripture, if he also knew how to prophesy and to reveal not only the future but also the secrets of the consciences and minds of others, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.’
And as they walked on, after a while St. Francis called again forcefully: ‘Brother Leo, Little Lamb of God, even if a Friar Minor could speak with the voice of an angel and knew the courses of the stars and the powers of herbs and knew all about the treasures in the earth and if he knew the qualities of birds and fishes, animals, humans, roots, trees, rocks and waters, write down and note carefully that true joy is not in that.’
And going a bit farther, St. Francis called again strongly: ‘Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor could preach so well that he should convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that perfect joy is not there.’
Now when he had been talking this way for a distance of two miles, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: ‘Father, I beg you in God's name to tell me where perfect joy is.’
And St. Francis replied: ‘When we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger and we ring at the gate of the Place and the brother porter comes and says angrily: Who are you? And we say: We are two of your brothers.’ And he contradicts us, saying: ‘You are not telling the truth. Rather you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!’ And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls — then if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that the porter really knows us and that God makes him speak against us, oh Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there!
And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out in anger and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying: ‘Get away from here, you dirty thieves — go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won’t eat or sleep here!’ — and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, oh, Brother Leo, write that that is perfect joy!
And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and the painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call and crying loudly beg them to open for us and let us come in for the love of God and he grows still more angry and says: ‘Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I'll give them what they deserve!’ And he comes out with a knotty club and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the ground, rolling us in the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that he covers our bodies with wounds — if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of him, oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!
And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God's, as the Apostle says: ‘What have you that you have not received?’
But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that it ours and so the Apostle says: ‘I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!’

This is not some type of “spiritualized” masochism, nor is it permission for those around saints to be sadistic, manipulative or (worse yet) apathetic. If Christ willingly chose to share his life with us, creating and sanctifying this universe for us, surely we can meet him part of the way. And the only way to do so is to crush our ego — to decrease as he increases (John 3:30).