Humility Lives in All the Saints
COMMENTARY: Let us take a quick glimpse at how a handful of saints embodied humility, recognizing both their own human weakness and the great things God called them to do through the strength of his grace.
“In Paradise there are many Saints who never gave alms on earth: their poverty justified them. There are many Saints who never mortified their bodies by fasting or wearing hair shirts: their bodily infirmities excused them. There are many Saints too who were not virgins: their vocation was otherwise. But in Paradise there is no Saint who was not humble.”
Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, Humility of Heart
All the saints were humble because they so loved and patterned their lives, whatever their circumstances or callings, after the humility of Christ. Let us take a quick glimpse at how a handful of saints embodied humility, recognizing both their own human weakness and the great things God called them to do through the strength of his grace.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)
When someone told young Thérèse she possessed great holiness, she replied (as recounted in her autobiography),:
“No, I am not a Saint. I have never wrought the works of a Saint. I am but a tiny soul whom Almighty God has loaded with His favors. The truth of what I say will be made known to you in Heaven.”
This humble young woman once wrote to God in her diary how she strove to “scatter flowers” to him through the simple joys, sorrows and most mundane acts of her life done in his honor. One day she would be declared not only a saint, but a great doctor of the Church for sharing with us her “Little Way.”
St. Albert the Great (c. 1200-1280)
St. Thomas Aquinas’ teacher Albert of Cologne was known as “Albert the Great” even while he was alive because of his mastery not only of theology and philosophy but of the natural sciences, having written profound books on almost every science you could name, from astronomy, through botany and biology, geology and geography, all the way to zoology. No wonder the Church honored him with the title of the “Universal Doctor” and designated him the patron saint of scientists. Still, Albert’s humility rang out loud and clear in his books on the natural sciences because he studied creation to learn about (and teach us about) the glories of its Creator. He studied effects to learn about their ultimate Cause; as he noted in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 13:35, as noted here:
“The first [cause], God — the most true, most sweet, most powerful from eternity forever and ever and reigning through boundless ages — can be known in another way, that is, through his effects.”
Six centuries after his death, Pope St. John Paul II had this to say, in 1980, about this great, yet humble, saint: “I recommend to you particularly the virtues of courage, which defends science in a world marked by doubt, alienated from truth, and in need of meaning; and humility, through which we recognize the finiteness of reason before Truth which transcends it. These are the virtues of Albert the Great.”
St. Humilitas (1226-1310)
Did you know we have a “St. Humility?” When Rosanna Negusanti’s two children died young, she and her husband heeded God’s call and became consecrated religious, he a monk, and she a nun, at a double monastery. A biographer describes that Rosanesa “mortified herself by taking on the most humble and servile jobs. The other Sisters thought this was a passing phase but the superior of the two monasteries understood her virtue and renamed her Umiltà (‘Humility’).”
Later in life, St. Humilitas would begin building a monastery of her own in Florence, Italy, consecrated to St. John the Evangelist. Indeed, this lover of hard work began by finding the stones herself and placing them on a donkey!
St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639)
St. Thomas Aquinas is often depicted holding in one hand a massive tome (his own Summa Theologica) and in the other hand a church (the Catholic Church), with a sun bursting forth in rays emblazoned across his chest (portraying the way he enlightens us). So what are we to make of a saint depicted with a broom, a dog, a cat and a mouse? Perhaps this saint too can teach us firsthand lessons about humility lived.
Martin de Porres was born in Peru to a former slave of African heritage and a highborn Spaniard who was not married to his mother and, indeed, did not acknowledge Martin for some time. Though trained as a barber, he was also highly sought after as a surgeon (the barbers of his day and time served as doctors, dentists and pharmacists, too.) He was a man of great intelligence immersed in the writings of his fellow Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Still, Martin never sought positions higher than those of barber, porter, bell ringer and animal-rescue-clinic manager. He desired to join the Dominicans but did not even strive to become a religious brother at first, being quite content with the role of a lay brother of lowest rank. Records show he later became a Dominican brother but preferred to remain in the lay brother’s garb.
Stories abound involving Martin’s love for animals and their love for him. Other stories demonstrate Martin’s truly Christlike humility. In a time of great racial prejudice and discrimination, Martin was sometimes called a “mulatto dog,” even at times by his brother friars. When taunted this way, Martin did not fight back, or merely shrug it off, but often sought these people out to do good works for them. When his friends would reprove him for this, he would say these people truly know him, a sinner.
In the most poignant example, he was nursing an older ailing priest scheduled to have his leg amputated the next day. The priest started berating him and insulted him, perhaps envying Martin’s youth, his joy or his health. A witness said Martin chuckled to himself as he left the room, for he had discerned that the priest had been craving a salad seasoned with capers. He came back the next day and served the priest such a salad. The priest savored his meal, begged Brother Martin’s forgiveness, and, indeed, his leg was healed. Would that we all could repay insults with such kindness!
So on this All Saints’ Day, may all the saints preserve us — and guide us toward the humility Jesus called us all to share with him.
Editor’s Note: This column was adapted from Humble Strength: The Eye-Opening Benefits of Humility (Ascension, 2022).