by Linda Frasier, O.C.D.S
When St Teresa of Avila established her foundations of the Carmelite reform, there were three virtues which she insisted be faithfully lived as part of her communities: love of neighbor, detachment from created things and humility. While Teresa considered each of these virtues essential, for Teresa the virtue of humility took “pride of place” and was seen as the linchpin underlying the others. In fact, Teresa even saw such a deep relationship between the virtues of detachment and humility that she referred to them as the “two inseparable sisters” which are always seen together. She goes on to say, “ These are not the relatives I advise you to withdraw from; rather, you should embrace them and love them and never be seen without them (WP 10.3).” Humility, according to Teresa, is the main practice which embraces all the others (WP 4.4). Alluding to Israel’s exodus from Egypt and time in the wilderness, Teresa says, “This is the work (obtaining the sister virtues) that must be done in order to escape from the land of Egypt, for in finding these you will find the manna. All things will taste good to you (WP 10.4).” These sister virtues are loved by Christ and by them souls are equipped “to fight against the devil, hell and all occasions of sin (WP 10.4).” Christ was never seen without the sister virtues and neither should we be. They are the virtues of victory.
How important was the virtue of humility in Teresa’s spirituality? Just a cursory review of The Way of Perfection and The Book of Her Life (not even counting references in The Interior Castle and her other works), reveals that Teresa mentioned humility over one hundred times! It would be easier to enumerate Teresa’s writings which do not mention humility—for you would find none. Pick any page in Teresa’s writings and you will find humility mentioned either implicitly or explicitly. Humility thoroughly permeates everything Teresa writes. Teresa notes the humility of humility and detachment, for they hide themselves from the souls who possess them. If one believes they possess the sisters, they are likely deceiving themselves. However diligently fervent souls strive to obtain these virtues, true humility within causes them to believe that they have never obtained them (WP 10.4). “These two virtues, humility and detachment from self, it is true, have the property of hiding themselves from the one who possesses them; he never sees them nor can believe that he has any of them, even if he be told so. But he has them, for he is forever trying to keep them, and perfecting them in himself more and more (WP10.4).” The eyes of devout souls are covered with an invisible veil. They cannot see the virtues of humility and detachment in themselves which are so evident to others. Humility flourishes in hiddenness.
In considering humility, it would be helpful to discuss what is meant by the word itself. A look in any dictionary will reveal that the word humility comes from the Latin, humus, meaning dirt, soil, earth or dust. In Genesis 3:19, we are reminded that we are dust and shall return to dust. Every garden requires good soil in order to be productive; in the garden of the soul, that soil is humility. True humility must not be confused with denial of one’s gifts and talents nor with mediocrity or passivity. True humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us, recognizing all the good in our lives as gift and realizing that we do not deserve that good. “Avoid being bashful with God, as some people are, in the belief they are humble. Yes, it would not be humility on your part if the King were to grant you a favor and you refused to accept it; humility is taking the favor and being pleased with it, and yet realizing how far you are from deserving it (WP28.3).” As Jesus taught in Luke 17:10, no matter how devotedly we have served, we are still unworthy servants who have only done our duty and undeserving of praise from God or others.
Teresa mentioned two important components of humility: walking in truth and self-knowledge. Teresa described an experience in The Book of Her Life when she saw the truth of her own sinfulness in light of the perfections of God. The more a soul realizes their littleness and frailty, the greater their self-knowledge becomes, leading to humility. In other words, the more we see God, the more we see ourselves; the closer we approach to God, the more his light illumines our self-knowledge. Humility could also be considered from the perspective of dimensionality for it extends both vertically to our relationship with God and horizontally to our relationships with others. In other words, humility has both moral/horizontal and religious/vertical dimensions.
Where does humility come from and how does one obtain it? Is it acquired through the efforts of the soul or is it infused by God as a gift? In The Book of Her Life (L 11:7), Teresa brings us to a garden of the soul to assist our understanding. This garden illustrates the soul of beginners in prayer at the time when God begins his work and the soul is barren and full of abominable weeds. God, “His Majesty” as Teresa calls him, assists and prepares for life in the soul by pulling weeds and planting good seed. Then the soul is entrusted with the responsibility of cultivating the garden with the help of God so the plants of virtue will grow. The soul must make the effort to supply the water for the garden so it will grow, bud, and flower into fragrance. When this happens, God will come and take delight in the garden and find joy among the virtues there. Thus, the virtue of humility, like fruit in the garden, is the result of both the efforts of the soul (and thus acquired) as well as an infused gift through the grace of God. As humility deepens in the soul, perhaps it even becomes more of an infused grace given as the soul gives more of itself to God.
Teresa gives her nuns advice on how one may recognize the effects of humility. “Humility, however deep it may be, neither disquiets nor troubles nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy and tranquility. On realizing how wicked we are, we may sense that we deserve hell, and may be distressed by this; we may rightly think that everyone should hate us; we may not even dare to ask for mercy. Yet, if our humility is true, this distress is accompanied by an interior peace and joy of which we would not like to be deprived. Far from disturbing or depressing the soul, true humility enlarges it and makes it fit to serve God better (WP 39.2).”Humility is liberating. We are free from the burden of our littleness because we enter into the greatness of God.
In the Constitutions of her order, Teresa gives evidence of some of the essential ways that her nuns are to live humility within the community. Of note, not only does Teresa not exempt the prioress from lowly manual labor such as sweeping the floor, she makes the prioress the first on the list to do so (C 22). In the same section of the Constitutions, the prioress is charged with the responsibility of making sure that the physical, material and spiritual needs of the community are met in a just manner, including those who are ill or elderly. The prioress does not reign over the community but rather becomes its humble servant. In her Constitutions, Teresa follows Jesus’ Gospel imperative that the greatest among them would be their servant (Matthew 20:26).
In Constitutions 30, Teresa addresses how observed faults are to be dealt with. It may happen that an older nun commits a fault which must be addressed by a younger nun. To be required to both give and to receive correction requires humility. Additionally, Teresa requires that the one being accused not answer back even if the accusation was mistaken and the sister was without fault. Teresa had experience with this in her own life and knew the difficulties of having to endure criticism or false accusation. “For I see that not making excuses for oneself is a habit characteristic of high perfection, and very meritorious; it gives great edification…Indeed, it calls for great humility to be silent at seeing oneself condemned without fault. This is a wonderful way to imitate the Lord who took away all our faults (WP 13.1).” When accused, Jesus remained silent. Not an easy example to follow but one which will quickly deepen one’s humility.
Each month, according to Constitutions 41, every nun must appear before the prioress to report how they are progressing in prayer and how the Lord has been leading them. To open one’s soul before another is a practice of humility and to open one’s soul to a soul as advanced as Teresa’s could be especially so. Humility does not let one deny the truth about themselves or their journey. Humility is truth and prevents us from deceiving ourselves or trying to deceive others or even the folly of trying to deceive God.
But what of those who do not live in an enclosed community? Does humility matter for them? Oh yes, for in every stage of the spiritual journey, humility must abide if one desires to be in relationship with God. As examples of humility, Teresa shows us Jesus who not only humbled himself to become man but also gave his life in sinless perfection. We have Jesus’ mother, Mary, whose humility is the banner of Carmel and who always said “yes” to God. Jesus and Mary were able to always say yes to God because their hearts were filled with humility and love. “Humility drew the King from heaven to the womb of the Virgin, and with it, by one hair, we will draw him to our souls. And realize that the one who has more humility will be the one who possesses him more; and the one who has less will possess him less. For I cannot understand how there could be be humility without love or love without humility; nor are these two virtues possible without detachment from all creatures (WP 16.2).” The King of Glory will not unite himself to a soul who is without humility and the love which fosters it. Humility creates space within us for God to fill. “Let us, at least, imitate his humility in some way. I say ‘in some way,’ for however much we might lower and humble ourselves, someone like myself does nothing; for…seldom is there anyone who hasn’t done something by which he has merited hell (WP13.3).”
Teresa asks each one to examen themselves to consider how much humility one has and to see what progress has been made. “Clearly, the humble will reflect on their lives and consider how they have served the Lord in comparison with how the Lord ought to be served and the wonders the Lord performed in lowering himself so as to give us an example of humility; and they will consider their sins and where they merited to be on account of them (WP 12.6).” “Let us, my daughters, imitate in some way the great humility of the Blessed Virgin, whose habit we wear, for it is embarrassing to call ourselves her nuns. However much it seems to us that we humble ourselves, we fall far short of being the daughters of such a Mother and the brides of such a Spouse (WP 13.3).” When one sees how far short they are in humility, that truth brings about deeper self-knowledge and lets humility blossom in fruition.
What are some other ways one lives humility in the midst of daily experiences? Whether it is experiences of aridity in prayer or in receiving infused gifts in contemplation or in misunderstanding and accusation, humility enables one to wait in gratitude and trust upon the Lord. “In regard to the mystical graces one’s whole task consists in accepting the cross of dryness with courage and humility and the freedom of spirit that comes from detachment from consolations.” In gifts and consolations, it is essential to remember that they are gifts from God and understand the fact that “God gives them to us without any merit on our part and let us thank His Majesty for them (L 10.4).” Humility is a great and costly virtue which lets one see all things, themselves, and God as they are in truth.
With Teresa’s many references to humility, it is not possible in the span of a few short words to do justice to her wisdom. For now, we must be content to only scratch the surface and to know that to reap a harvest from her teachings on humility will be the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps for the purposes of this paper, it will suffice if we have come to appreciate a little more about Teresa’s understanding of humility and grown in our own desire to persevere with determination the beautiful virtue of humility.
 Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, The Way of Perfection (henceforth abbreviated as WP); (Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, DC, 2000). Chapter 10.3.
 RSVCE Bible
 Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. The Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila: Volume 1:The Book of Her Life (henceforth abbreviated as L). (Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C., 1987).
 Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. The Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila: Volume 3: Constitutions (henceforth abbreviated as C) (Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington D.C., 1985).
 Kavanaugh and Rodriguez. Volume 2: Life, introduction, page 46.
Kavanaugh, Kieran. The Way of Perfection. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 2000.
Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio. The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila: Volume 1. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1987.
Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio. The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila: Volume 2. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1980.
Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio. The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila: Volume 3. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1985.
Williams, Rowan. Teresa of Avila. New York, NY: Wellington House, 2000.
Linda Frasier, O.C.D.S. is a member of the O.C.D.S. Denver Community of the Holy Spirit. She is a retired Registered Nurse and completed graduate work in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care (Spiritual Direction). She is currently a student at the Carmelite Institute of Britain and Ireland.