When she was asked what inspired her during the foundation of the Carmel in Paris, her reply to Mother Anne of Jesus, St. Teresa’s companion, was, “The only part I have played in this enterprise, Mother, is through the mistakes I have made.”
As a lay sister, she considered herself to be “the most imperfect person, not only in this house, but in the whole Order.”
Very few of her writings show her in a good light; she destroyed them. She said of humility, ” It is the shortest and surest way to God.”
Madame Acarie, or an “abyss of humility”
Rev. Jean Philippe Houdret, OCD
If I had to define the content of this lecture, I would say that it concerns Madame Acarie’s humility, as it features in the depositions of several witnesses who were questioned during the apostolic process (1630-1633) leading to her beatificationDe nombreux témoignages cités ici recoupent ceux reproduits par monsieur André Duval dans sa célèbre « Vie admirable de sœur Marie de l’Incarnation appelée dans le monde mademoiselle Acarie » publiée à Paris en 1621 et rééditée en 1893. Voir en particulier : livre I, ch. XV et suivants, et livre II, ch. V : De son humilité..
It is on the basis of these testimonies, kindly chosen and passed on to me by Sister Anne-Thérèse, archivist of Pontoise Carmel, that I have prepared this paper, since I myself am neither an expert on Blessed Mary nor on humility !
Here is the plan which I propose to follow; after the introduction, Part One will give an overview of Madame Acarie’s humility “in the world” and Part Two will demonstrate Sister Mary of the Incarnation’s humility in Carmel. Finally, in Part Three, I shall summarise Blessed Mary’s teaching on humility. In my conclusion I shall raise the question of how this humility is to be imitated.
Mother Jeanne of Jesus, sister of Chancellor Seguier and member of the community at Pontoise Carmel, exclaims in her deposition, “It would take whole books to recount in detail all the words and actions of Blessed Mary that are related to her humility"Les références renvoient aux dépositions des témoins.
A noter que nous avons parfois très légèrement modernisé le français des citations, afin de les rendre plus compréhensibles. Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235- 857v.. [N.B. For references, see the end of this conference paper]
Indeed, humility appears to be a characteristic and permanent trait of Madame Acarie’s spiritual make-up. She gave countless proofs of this before her entry into Carmel, and even more during the few years she spent in the Order. There are numerous testimonies to this and they bear each other out in a striking way.
It is apparent that humility was not one trait amongst others in her spiritual make-up, but that it was as it were, the fundamental disposition of her spiritual life and a disposition which showed the depth of her union with God.
Father Etienne Binet SJ puts it neatly : “Her deep and well-grounded humility was the veil covering the “Holy of Holies” within her beautiful soul”2233-65v..
Certain witnesses go so far as to stress the unsearchable depths of Blessed Mary’s humility. A word which struck me, and which can be found in two of the testimonies which I shall quote is “abîme” (abyss).
Firstly, the testimony of Sister Anne of St. Laurence, as follows : “Her humility exceeded what it was possible to put into words. It was truly an abyss, an abyss so profound that the mere remembrance of it leaves one confounded.”(de Saint Lieu), 2236-67v.
And this is the testimony of M. André Duval, one of the Superiors of Carmel, as recorded by Mother Marie of St Joseph : “He told us, amongst other things [after Blessed Mary’s death] that we ought to picture her in her humility; as for himself, he saw that her humility had the depth of an abyss, and that if anything of the Infinite could be found in a creature, this is where it would be found in her(Fournier), 2236-128v..”
These statements, in agreement on Blessed Mary’s “abyss of humility” are eloquent enough, and spare me the necessity of quoting other relevant testimonies, i.e. those of Michel de Marillac, Keeper of the Seals, or those of two FeuillantinesFeuillants : religieux de l’ordre cistercien réformé par Dom Jean de la Barrière., Dom Eustache of St. Paul and Dom Sans of St. Catherine; the latter wrote a book of spiritual exercises in which all the teaching on humility is drawn from what he had learned from Sister Mary of the Incarnation.
After these words of praise quoted by way of introduction, let us go to the heart of our subject by looking at the examples of humility given to us by Blessed Mary throughout her life.
Let us look first of all at Madame Acarie “in the world” before her entry into Carmel; that comprises by far the greatest part of her existence! Because we must not forget – this is by way of a simple reminder – that she was born on February 1, 1566 and died on April 18, 1618, at the age of fifty-two. Her time in Carmel covers only the last four years of her life, from 1614 – 1618, even if they were its crowning achievement!
The important events which marked the long period of forty-eight years, from 1566 to 1614, have been described in a previous lecture on the life of Madame Acarie. I shall refer to them only when I am quoting testimonies. Also, so as not to complicate my talk, I shall not in every case name the person whose words I am quoting or summarising.
I shall begin with a testimony evoking the childhood of Blessed Mary. Between the ages of eleven and fourteen, she was entrusted for her education to the Poor Clares, known as the Sisters of the Humility of Our Lady, at the monastery in Longchamp. We learn how young Barbe Avrillot had already won the admiration of the Abbess and her tutor (Sister Jeanne de Mailly) " because of her obedience, her devotion (i.e. piety) and humility "Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier) 2235-809v.. We must keep this information in mind, even if it sounds to us rather like hagiography !
The adolescent girl thought of the religious life, but her parents had other plans for her. After her marriage to Pierre Acarie in August 1582 (Barbe was then sixteen and a half) she lived through a “worldly” period in her life, before experiencing a conversion in 1587, when she was twenty-one, a conversion which effected her profound interior transformation from 1587 to 1593. “Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit.” (“He is indeed a miser for whom God does not suffice”) the sentence which had made an impression on her, became ever more firmly rooted in her mind. One thinks of St. Teresa’s “Nada te turbe” (“Let nothing disturb thee”) with its affirmation “He who has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices” (Solo Dios basta”) Detachment from created things, attachment to God alone. The primacy of God, making everything else relative, would set a seal on the life of Barbe Acarie from now on and would guide her outlook and actions. It was then that she was the recipient of mystical graces and experienced her first ecstasies.
Married life would give Madame Acarie the opportunity to practice humility daily! She was in effect a wife who constantly obeyed her husband, being careful not to cross him in any way, and tolerating with patience and humility his dictates, his moods and his indecisiveness. Pierre Acarie was all too well aware of this, and he would make this piquant observation, recorded by M. Duval : “They say that one day my wife will be a saint, but I shall have had a hand in it. They will speak of me at her canonisation because of the trials I have put her through”A. Duval, op. cit. p. 36.. In educating the six children who would be born to her (three boys and three girls) she was careful to instil in them in a concrete way the virtue of humility as a foundation of the spiritual life. “She led them to the practice of humility, a practice which she wished them to be familiar with from an early age, since she herself was very attracted to it.”A. Duval, op. cit. p. 41.
The years 1594 to 1598 were a time of trial for Pierre and Barbe Acarie. In 1594, after abjuring Protestantism and being crowned King, Henry IV succeeded in entering Paris, vanquishing the resistance of the members of the League. By the fact that he belonged to the League, Pierre was sent into exile. His possessions were confiscated. It was a very precarious situation for the Acarie household. Barbe put her children in a place of safety, remaining herself in Paris. If, as is said, humiliations are necessary to make someone truly humble, Madame Acarie had her fair share ! She was humiliated, despised, even shown the door, in the literal sense, when she begged for loans so as to cope with her debts, which were enormous, or when she took initiatives on her husband’s account, so that he could return to favour.
Far from being overwhelmed by these misfortunes and by health problems (several falls which would leave her disabled) they caused her to feel “an interior joy which she could scarcely conceal” (truly the “perfect joy” spoken of by St. Francis of Assisi). According to the same witness “When one of her friends would come at that time to console her, she could scarcely refrain from laughing, seeing that she was being offered sympathy over something which was so agreeable to her”. And later, when she remembered these times of misfortune she called them “the good times”Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-856v, 857r..
At the end of this time of trial, in 1598, Barbe Acarie, who was now thirty-two, had reached full human and spiritual maturity. She continued to carry out many charitable activities on behalf of the poor,-11- who could be found in such large numbers in Paris. Because of her spiritual influence, many people came to consult her about their interior lives; these included religious and priests. One of the persons who benefited from this spiritual accompaniment testified that she was so humble in exercising the guidance of souls that she never assumed any “authority of commandment”. (one would speak today of “giving directives”) over any of them"Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-857r..
Madame Acarie preferred “persuasion” after the manner of St. Francis de Sales. Moreover, she never made the decision to give spiritual guidance to a soul unless it was clear to her that it was the will of God for her to do so.
This was the time when she was involved, in one way or another, with the reform of several religious houses, and then she was about to take on a much more difficult enterprise. Encouraged on two occasions by a vision of St. Teresa of Avila, and with the backing of several priest friends and the support of her relatives, she organised the journey of the Spanish Carmelite nuns to Paris for the purpose of introducing the Teresian Carmelite Order into France.
It is not surprising that in the course of these various undertakings she encountered misunderstanding or opposition. According to her close associates, “she bore, with great joy the insults and calumnies” which were provoked by the Devil, to counter the good which she was doing “for the establishment of piety and devotion”Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-857r.. She demonstrated heroic, hidden patience. A witness confirms this. “We need to be aware of the internal and external operations through which God tested and purified her, and which she suffered in the most humble and virtuous way, keeping silent about them so as to avoid ostentation and to receive less consolationMère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-857v,858r..”
Her inherent humility is most in evidence in her relationship with the Court. From the time that she was honoured by people of power and influence in France, and held in high esteem by the Queen herself, Marie de Medici, when every one admired her because of the graces she had received from God and the success of her undertakings, she did not have the slightest feeling of self-satisfaction. “I have seen her, when she was still in the world, in the Queen’s bedchamber, and amongst the great ladies and Princesses of the Court. All the lavish demonstrations of affection she received did not flatter her ego; on the contrary, one could see from the modest look on her face that all this was a source of embarrassment to herPère Binet, 2233-357r.“. Far from seeking to be on display amongst the nobility in this fashion, she much preferred to converse with the poor or the invalids in the Hotel-DieuSœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-387r..
In all her involvement, Madame Acarie was conscious that she was nothing but an instrument in the hands of God. When later on, she was complimented by a sister at Amiens Carmel on her achievements “in the world” she replied that “she was like a stick that God could throw on the fire after He had made use of it and that He could do that whenever He pleased”Sœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-387r.. If this remark dates from the end of her life, it is nevertheless a good illustration of Barbe Acarie’s feeling that she was only an instrument, and an instrument that was very lacking !
We can recall at this point her famous reply given to mother Anne of Jesus, St. Teresa’s companion. The event took place is the second half of October 1604, the date when the Spanish Sisters arrived at the Monastery of the Incarnation in Paris. (Madame Acarie had supervised its construction). Mother Anne of Jesus asked her one day how she had been guided by God and how He had led her to work on this foundation. She could get no other reply from Barbe than the following : “Mother, I have taken no part in this enterprise unless it is through the mistakes that I have made”A. Duval, 2236-335v., A. Duval, op. cit. p. 153, Bruno de J.M., La Belle Acarie, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1942, p. 326 et 358.. It is a reply which we today find edifying and also amusing, when we think of the trouble which Blessed Mary took to bring the enterprise to a satisfactory conclusion, in spite of all the obstacles she met along the way !
After the Carmelites were established in Paris, in view of the influx of vocations, new Carmelite foundations in France multiplied: Pontoise in January 1605, then Dijon in the autumn of the same year, Amiens in 1606, Tours in 1608, Rouen in 1609, and so on. At the time of Blessed Mary’s death in 1618, seventeen monasteries would have been founded.
From the year 1602 Madame Acarie knew that God was calling her to enter Carmel. When she was travelling to Saint-Nicholas-de-Port, near Nancy, she had a vision; God showed her that he wished her to be a Carmelite, not as a choir sister but as a lay sister. Notice that although this lowly position suited her, the fact of not being able to take part in the choral offices was a real sacrifice for her.
The aforementioned call of God sheds light on the conversation recorded by a lay sister at Pontoise Carmel
“Before she became a religious, she was once in this convent (with permission) and came into the kitchen; she asked me if I was willing to take her as a companion in the office of a lay sister. I told her that we were not worthy of such a favour. Then she said to me “Oh Sister, what a happy state is yours! If God granted me so much grace that I became a religious, I would choose no other state.” And this is what she did, as soon as she was at liberty to enter religious life.2236-68r.“
This recollection by Sister Anne of St. Laurence leads us on to the second part of my talk.
After the death of her husband on November 17, 1613, and after she had settled his affairs, in spite of her disabilities and illnesses, Madame Acarie set out for Carmel, as her three daughters had done before her, first Marguerite, then Genevieve and Marie.
Remember that Blessed Mary entered Amiens Carmel at the age of forty-eight on February 15, 1614. She received the habit there on April 7 following (the transferred Feast of the Annunciation). She received the name in religion of Sister Mary of the Incarnation. She made her final profession one year later on April 8, 1615. At the end of the following year, she was transferred to the Carmel of Pontoise, where she arrived on December 7, 1616. She remained there until her death on April 18, 1618, so she was at Amiens Carmel for two years and just short of ten months, and at Pontoise Carmel for a year and slightly more than four months.
Madame Acarie entered Carmel as a lay sister in conformity with the vision which she had received at Saint-Nicholas-de-Port. She felt that she was quite unworthy of this lowly position and of religious life itself. She even said that God had made her blind and that if she had realised the nature of Religion (that is, religious life) she would never have had the strength to offer herself for it, in view of her unworthinessMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-357v.. One day, in the course of a conversation, she became ecstatic at the thought of the Mercy of God which had allowed her to enter the religious life, “What mercy He has shown me, Sister, after so many years of stagnation in the world !…”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358r.
She had difficulty in bringing herself to accept the religious habit agreeing to receive it “through God’s mercy” and not “through His justice”. In the same way, it cost her to make her professionMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358r et Sœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-385r.. All the time, she gave proof of her very high esteem for religious life, together with a realisation of her unworthiness which covered her with confusionPère Eustache de Saint-Paul, feuillant, 2235-600r.. She was astonished that her companions were able to tolerate her, and she considered herself “the least and the last of the novices and lay sisters in the Order”, thinking that she was “the most imperfect member, not only in that house, but in the whole Order“A. Duval, 2236-357v, Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-853r et Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-531r..
She made great efforts to remain “within the limits of her status as a lay sister"; she usually spoke only to the other lay sisters or else to the novicesMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358v.. And she often deplored the fact that she did not possess “the spirit of her state in life”, “the spirit of a lay sister, that littleness and lowliness which takes the last place.”Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier), 2236-127v.
With the little health that remained to her, she took on the tasks which were considered to be the most menial, in the kitchen. Her greatest ambition from then on was to “wash the bowls, scour the cauldrons and to prepare the greens (vegetables) [lit. “to peel the herbs”] or to “slice the bread and get everything ready for dinner (i.e. lunch)”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358r et sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-694r.. She carried out all these tasks with extraordinary fervour, recognising that “God granted her more graces in the course of these lowly exercises and communicated more interior sweetness to her than in mental prayer”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358r.. “God is amongst the pots and pans”, St Teresa of Avila had already observed, in “The book of the Foundations” (Chapter 5)Ch. 5, 8.
Because she was continually focused on “her nothingness” or “her wretchedness” she never spoke of herself except in "scornful or self-deprecating terms”Père Eustache de Saint-Paul, feuillant, 2235-600r et Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358v.. She habitually described herself as “proud, incorrigible, inured to evil” and she compared herself to a useless bit of rag to be thrown away or a little worm that could be crushed by the tip of a fingerSœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-698v et Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-853r.. Sometimes she would exclaim “I am like a toad, puffed up with pride” or at another time “Wretch that you are, you will never practise true humility !”Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530r.
She often said to her Prioress at Amiens “Mother, I am entirely lacking in virtue”, emphasising her point by repeating “Entirely”. “I know only a little about virtue, but when it comes to practising it, nothing at all; I do not know what that is”Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530v.. When she thought of herself as wretched and riddled with faults, it did not surprise her; she considered that she was dung and nothing else could be expected of herMère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530v..
If there was one thing which she found deeply humiliating – all the testimonies mention it – it was the obligation to make use of a chair because of her infirmities, and to be as it were enthroned amongst her sisters who were seated at a lower levelMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358v.. She would sometimes cry out in tears, “I’m sitting here like a toad all puffed up with vanity", in the place which my vanity deserves. Since I am more vain than the rest, I am sitting on a higher level than they are, so that they can get a better view of this vain woman. Oh, God is indeed treating me in the way I deserve !Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-700r, Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-850r.et Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier), 2236-128r.“. She was after all, very conscious that she could still be tempted to pride and subject to it in its most insidious forms.Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-852v,853r.
Blessed Mary “was accustomed to beg the sisters to make her faults known to her, and she bemoaned the fact that she was allowed to grow old with her evil tendencies remaining, a poor incorrigible woman who showed no sign of mending her waysSœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-388rv et Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530v.“. Several witnesses speak of her promptness in accusing herself of faults “in such an exaggerated way… that it seemed that she was utterly disobedient and filled with pride”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358v..
Here is the testimony of Mother Marie of Jesus Acarie, her eldest daughter, who was a Carmelite in Amiens:– Sœur Marie de Jésus, sous-prieure au carmel d’Amiens, a rempli le rôle de présidente en l’absence de la prieure non encore arrivée de Paris. Elle a rapporté plus tard combien l’obéissance de sa mère, venant lui demander avec déférence toutes les permissions, a été source d’édification pour les sœurs et… de confusion extrême pour elle-même. 2236-529v, 530r.
“When the Mother Prioress of Amiens drew the sisters’ attention in a general way to some fault or omission, she was always the first to accuse herself of it and she was always the first to say her coulpe 5a in the Chapter [of Faults]… It is impossible to describe the exaggerated way in which she detailed her faults in Chapter, still less her attitude of humility and sorrow as she trembled from head to foot, with tears in her eyes. One could not see her or hear her without being deeply touched and filled with devotion.Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530v, Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-851r, André Duval 2236-357v.“
This was her usual practice in Amiens Carmel, then subsequently at Pontoise, where, according to the depositions of the Prioress and the Sisters “Whenever we were gathered together, she spoke of her faults”Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-530v.. She took as much care in revealing her faults as others did in concealing theirs !
Another aspect of her humility was the amazing respect which she showed to her sisters.
“Sometimes, she flattened herself against the wall to such a point that you would think that she wanted to hide inside it, and she bowed very low in front of them [the other Sisters] when they passed; we saw this on many occasions (…) and all the Sisters recalled how she looked at them with profound respect and humility on each occasion when they metSœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-698r.“.
This respectful attitude was expressed in submission to all the Sisters without discrimination and with “the gentleness and humility of a child.”Sœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard) ; 2235-387v. : “She obeyed everyone, fulfilled their wishes, showed forethought for their well being, always put them first, and placed herself at the service of all, irrespective of who they wereA. Duval, 2236-356r.“. When the Sisters were in the warning-room in the winter, she was eager to sit where the smoke was bothersome (as, later on, little Thérèse would choose the place in the laundry where she was most likely to be splashed)Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-850v.
Sister Mary of the Incarnation took “remarkable care to let nothing appear in her words or actions which was out of the ordinary”Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier) 2236-129r.. You can understand what a source of embarrassment to Blessed Mary were the remarkable graces which she received from God, her ecstasies and her very painful invisible stigmata. She tried to cover “the invasions of Divine Love, her absorption and her raptures”Mère Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier) 2236-129r. or tried to pass them off as effects of her illnessesMère Marie de Saint-Joseph (Fournier), 2236-129r. so that “nothing in her would appear to be out of the ordinary”Sœur Anne de Saint-Laurent (de Saint-Lieu), 2236-68r.. Her sisters were not deceived, but they went along with her and pretended not to notice anything, so as not to increase her pain and embarrassmentSœur Marie de Jésus (de Tudert), 2235-560r..
In everyday life, she had more confidence in other people’s opinions than her ownAndré Duval, 2236-357v. and “When she recognised the will of God in some matter or some difficulty with which she was presented she never said “It is God’s will. One must do such and such” or “There is nothing to fear”. But she said, with great humility “I think that one ought to do such and such” or “This is what I thought” or “It seems to me that…”Mère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-536v..
Although she had received important insights into the spiritual life (“everything which concerns the purgative, illuminative and unitive way”, according to M. Duval,André Duval, 2236-358r. Sister Mary of the Incarnation left behind only a few short passages of writing (prayers which she had composed) which were published a few years after her death, in 1622, under the title “Les vrais exercices” (“The true exercises”) To a Sister who expressed her regret, she replied, “I did write something, but I have burned all [my writings] because everything which I produce seems to me so dull and worthless. There are so many great saints who have written about these things; who am I, to speak about them ?Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-698r.“ This is completely in character !
We know that her state of health was deplorable. When illness confined her to bed she called herself “A gangrenous limb that has been cut off”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-358v.. During her last illness, to shake her out of her drowsiness and to get her to speak it was only necessary to remind her of some failing.
“I told her that she was very ungrateful for the kindness she received and that she said nothing about it”. Straightaway she said “It is because of my pride, for I abhor ingratitude”. I told her that she talked to us about nothing else but her pride. “It is true” she said, “that is what I am”. “This shows”, the Sister (Marie of St. Joseph) concluded, “that she condemned herself in every respect2236-127v, 128r.“.
When gathering together these varied aspects of Blessed Mary’s humility, I have often thought of the second chapter of Book One of “The dark night” by St. John of the Cross. The Saint is speaking of pride, and to make an obvious contrast, he describes the attitude and conduct of those who are humble. Mary of the Incarnation was a living illustration of this. She truly practised what she preached !
Let me begin by making the point that Sister Mary of the Incarnation, in her capacity as lay sister, steadfastly refrained from teaching others. She even said, according to M. Duval : “A lay sister should listen and remain silent, rather than make herself understood by speaking”André Duval, 2236-358r, Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-698v.. Remaining silent, listening, learning from others; that was her programme in a nutshell.
But in Amiens Carmel her first Prioress asked her to speak to the novices for their instruction. One of them remembered that Blessed Mary took the book “The Spiritual combat” (the classic of spirituality edited by the Italian Theatine, Lorenzo Scupoli, who lived from 1530 to 1610) and that she gave them a simple commentary on the first chapters which deal with mistrust of self and confidence in God ; these seemed to her the indispensable basis of the spiritual lifeSœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-648v..
M. Duval, yielding to the demands of the Sisters, obliged her in consequence to give them some instruction. He noted that :
“she did not get involved in abstruse questions or considerations, but spoke like a simple, ordinary woman.” (Note the expression!) “If the conversation turned to the admirable gifts of God, such as she had received in abundance, she said not a word. But if, on the other hand, the discussion was on humility then she became more enthusiastic, and she was carried away, using a richness and variety of expression, and words of great profundity which were a wonderful demonstration of the love she had for this virtue in the silence of her heartAndré Duval, 2236-358v..”
Now let us gather together some of Blessed Mary’s teaching (which cannot be separated from the testimony which she herself gave through her behaviour).
God gave her a great esteem for, and wide experience of the virtue of humility “She dearly loved those souls who approached God along this path, which is the shortest and most secure. She said we should err if we went another way, but through humility and self-knowledge, we free ourselves and everyone else from illusionMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359r.“.
As far as she was concerned, grace had no finer purpose than to humble us and make us lowlyPère Eustache de Saint-Paul, feuillant, 2235-600v. and nothing contributed more to the [spiritual] progress of humanity than a joyous disregard of selfAndré Duval, 2236-362r..
Her mainstay was the contemplation of Our Lord’s humility during His earthly life and especially the contempt He suffered during His Passion on the CrossMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359v.. One day, when she was looking at the crucifix in her cell, she cried out,
“How can it be possible for us not to welcome the experience of being despised, seeing that God has been brought to such an extremity? If there was one thing which I could ask of God while upon this earth, it would be the grace to tread the same path of scorn as the Son of God, and to appear base in my own eyes and the eyes of others. Oh, my God, what a mercy that would be!” and she added immediately “Oh, but I am not worthy of that”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359v et Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-693r..
She was very fond of the words of Our Lord in the Gospel, “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. Ch. II, v 29) She also loved the words of the Prophet, “On whom shall my Spirit rest, if not on the one who is humble and who fears and trembles at my words?” (Adapted from Isaiah, Ch. 6 vv 1-2)Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359v. She made the following commentary – one can almost hear her speaking ! – “Yes, it is there that the Spirit of God comes to rest and where It remains at rest; in the soul which tries to be always humble, always lowly, always little, always fearful, and which remains in its littleness, in fear and trembling before God who is far above it.Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-692v, 693r.“
Blessed Mary emphasised the link between humility and truth, as St. Teresa of Avila had done. She said that humility was the spirit of truth which makes us see the truth about ourselves in our misery and nothingnessSœur Marie de Jésus (de Tudert), 2235-560r.. She would repeat a maxim that she had read in a life of St. Francis, that we are only what we appear to be in the eyes of God ; “Oh, my Sisters, remember that we are only that which we are in the eyes of God; so why do we want to parade ourselves in front of His creatures, when in the end, we are only that which we are in His eyesMère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359r et Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-654r. ?”
Taking up St. Paul’s comparison of the treasure hidden in an earthenware jar (Cor 2, Ch 4 v 7) she affirmed with the Apostle that we should not glorify ourselves on account of the graces we have received from God
“We are only like a poor, dirty earthenware pot. If the King makes use of it to store his treasures, and embellishes it, it will be very beautiful, but as soon as He takes them away, the pot returns to the state it was in before. In the same way, we too are rich when God grants His graces, but He can take them away from us in an instant and then we are left in all our poverty and wretchednessSœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-388r, et Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-699rv.”
What are the signs of true humility ? The testimonies give us some genuine maxims of Blessed Mary. Here are some examples.
- “One has to be very humble in order to give exact account of one’s faults and to accuse oneself of them properly”Mère Françoise de Jésus (de Fleury), 2235-359r.. She notes that the refusal to recognise one’s faults is the result of hidden pride and spiritual blindness, and that in admitting one’s faults one should not flatter oneself by making them appear less serious than they are.Sœur Marie de Jésus (de Tudert), 2235-560r, Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-855v.
- “We must rejoice when we see that our faults are known, and that we are embarrassed and reproved as a result (…)”Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-855r. because in this way, as she makes clear, people know what we are like, and the pride and wretchedness which lie deep within us.Sœur Marie du Saint-Sacrement (de Marillac), 2235-693v, 694r.
- “The reprehensions (reproaches) of one’s Superiors must be received as if they come from God while recognising the mercy which He has shown us (…)”Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-855v.
- “It should be no surprise that we fall, but it is a sign of intolerable pride not to wish to be picked up (i.e. corrected)”Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-855v.. She makes the remark, when speaking of our faults, that God often permits them to happen because we are relying too much on ourselves and not expecting to gain our strength from God alone.Sœur Marie de Jésus (de Tudert), 2235-560r.
- “When we are given some small penance for our faults, we should welcome it immediately and acknowledge the mercy of God.” And indeed, she stresses that "God is satisfied with a small penance performed by those who have deserved Hell-fire"Mère Jeanne de Jésus (Séguier), 2235-855v.
One last point in Blessed Mary’s teaching to which I would like to draw your attention is the radical difference which she makes between humility and faintheartedness; humility is always generousMère Marie de Jésus (Acarie), 2236-536v. in God’s service, all the time relying not on the self, but on God ; on the contrary, faintheartedness makes us lax and fearful, and easily goes hand in hand with mediocrity.
Amongst the testimonies on this subject, I select that of Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (the daughter of Michel de Marillac) who was a Carmelite in the Pontoise monastery. Let us pay attention to the following description :
“We were once with her in her cell. She had just been speaking to us about humility; how humility always keeps the soul in the path of duty, makes it feel its nothingness and its littleness (that it can do nothing, that it is nothing, and other things of the kind). She was so absorbed in the ideas which she was expressing, that when she spoke of the profound abasement of the soul which has true self-knowledge, she became visibly bowed down and her face was extremely pale. I looked at her closely, since I was standing in front of her, but without saying a word to her, I was thinking to myself, and feeling some distaste at what she had been telling us, “Anyone who was always like that would not have an iota of courage, he would never undertake anything!” This thought had scarcely come to me (…) when she jumped up from her chair, and standing upright, her beautiful face all flushed, she said, with great fervour, and looking in my direction, “Oh, a humble soul is always vigorous, always courageous, always ready to do great things, but by looking at God and not at itself; because it expects nothing from itself, but everything from God. The confidence that the soul has in God enables it to do great things.2235-727rv.“
The above gives us an admirable picture in which we both see and hear Blessed Mary of the Incarnation in her humility, a humility consisting entirely of mistrust of self and confidence in God; “this made her truly act with reference to God in all things” as one of her companions in Amiens Carmel noted with admiration.Sœur Françoise de la Mère de Dieu (Richard), 2235-387v.
When one reads the various depositions for the beatification process, even taking into account the detail which is proper to this kind of literature, one cannot but be impressed by the personality and the holiness of Blessed Mary of the Incarnation. I have only selected for you the passages which concern humility but the study should be completed by the other aspects of her spiritual makeup. These could be revealed in other conference papers.
I have no doubt that certain ideas or ways of expressing humility which I have chosen to describe, taken in isolation, could be surprising, shocking or even suspect, considered as excessive fault-finding or indulgence in masochism ! But they must always be situated in the context of her fundamental disposition, inseparable from union with God – the “abyss of humility” which I described in my introduction, in accordance with the witnesses.
But is such humility to be admired rather than imitated ? I put the question in this way because I imagine that during the course of this lecture, this thought has probably occurred to you; such humility, taken to extremes, could scarcely be imitated by ourselves, ordinary Christians – often too ordinary ! So we are content to admire her from afar, just as when we are in the mountains, we look up with admiration at their snowy peaks which are for us, inaccessible.
This is a perfectly understandable reaction. But we should not leave matters as they stand. That would cause Blessed Mary great sorrow! Let us not forget that experience of the Saints, in their union with God in love, is exceptional but not extraordinary. If it were merely extraordinary, it would be the preserve of the Saints, a charism proper to themselves and of no concern to us. In fact, they live with exceptional and white-hot intensity through the same experience as we do, enkindled as we are to a lesser degree.
If we wish to be Christ’s disciples, if we wish to enter the school of our Master who was “gentle and humble of heart”, if we want to imitate the Blessed Virgin, the “lowly handmaid of the Lord”, we too have to embark on and make progress in the way of humility, which is also the way of truth, (truth in relation to God, to others and to ourselves) and in consequence a way of true spiritual liberty, because the truth makes us free. So Gospel humility, which is inseparable from charity, is a road which leads us to God. The joy, and also the reward, of humility is to have an intimation of, and to discover, at the last, the humility of God.Sur ce thème, nous avons le beau livre du père François Varillon « L’humilité de Dieu », Le Centurion, 1974. En épigraphe est citée cette parole de Maître Eckhart : « La vertu qui a nom humilité est enracinée au fond de la déité ». For God is humble, absolutely humble, infinitely humble. What an astonishing mystery !
In conclusion let us listen to a few lines from the writings of St. John of the Cross. They are taken from the commentary on Verse Three of “The Living Flame” (section 6) :
“Since he is the virtue of supreme humility he loves you with supreme humility and esteem and makes you his equal, gladly revealing himself to you in these ways of knowledge, in this his countenance filled with graces and telling you…” “I am yours and for you and delighted to be what I am so as to be yours and give myself to you”. (John of the Cross : Collected Works, tr. Kavanagh, pp 675-6)