The scale (or ladder) of perfection



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SECTION I

What a Man should use and refuse by the Virtue of Humility

Now if thou desirest to prosecute spiritual works and exercises wisely, and to labour seriously in them, it behoveth thee to begin right low; three things needest thou first to have, upon which as on a firm ground thou shalt set all thy work, namely, humility, a firm faith, and resolute will and purpose to seek after God.
Humility necessary for Contemplation

First, it behoveth thee to have humility on this manner: thou shalt in thy will and in thy feeling judge thyself unfitting to dwell among men and unworthy to serve God in conversation with His servants and as unprofitable to thy Christian brethren, wanting both skill and power to fulfil any good works of active life in help of thy neighbour, as other men and women do. And, therefore, as a wretch and an outcast and refuse of all men art shut up in a house alone, that thou shouldst not grieve nor offend man or woman by thy bad example, seeing thou canst not profit them by any well-doing. Beyond this it behoveth thee to look further, that since thou art so unable to serve our Lord by outward bodily works, how much more it behoveth thee to deem thyself unable and unworthy to serve him spiritually by inward exercises; for our Lord is a spirit, as the prophet saith: Our Lord is a Spirit before our face, and the most kindly service to Him is spiritual, as He saith Himself: True worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.61 Thou then that art so gross, so lewd, so fleshly, so blind in spiritual things and in the understanding of thy own soul (which it behoveth thee first to know before thou canst come to the knowing of God), how shouldst thou feel or think thyself to be able or worthy to enjoy the estate or likeness of a contemplative life, which consisteth principally, as I have said, in spiritual knowing. This I speak to thee, not that thou shouldst repent thee of thy clothing, enclosing and state of life, but that thou shouldst feel this humility really in thy heart (if thou canst), for this is the very truth and no lie. And, thereupon, thou shalt night and day desire and endeavour to come in truth as near as thou canst to that state which thou hast taken upon thee, firmly believing it to be the best kind of state for thee (by the mercy of God) to exercise thyself in. And though it be so that thou canst not in this life attain to the perfection of that state, yet, at least, seek to make an entry into it, and trust assuredly to have the perfection thereof by the mercy of God in heaven. And truly this is my own case, who feel myself so wretched, frail and fleshly, and so far from the true feeling of that which I speak of, that in a manner I do nothing but cry, God mercy, and desire after it (as well as I can) with a hope that our Lord will bring me thereto in heaven. Do thou likewise; and better also, if God give thee grace.
Not to judge others.

The feeling of this lowness and humility will put out of thy heart all imprudent looking into other men's actions, and drive thee wholly to behold thyself, as if there were no other man living but God and thyself. And thou shalt deem and hold thyself more vile and more wretched than any one creature that liveth; insomuch that thou shalt hardly be able to brook and endure thyself, for the greatness and number of thy sins, and the filth which thou shalt feel in thyself.
A Contemplative should judge a venial sin in himself more grievous than a mortal sin in another.

Thus behoveth it thee sometimes to feel and judge of thyself, if thou mean to become truly humble. For I tell thee truly, if thou wilt be very humble, thou must think a venial sin in thyself more grievous and painful to thee and greater in thy sight sometimes than great deadly sins in other men. And this is most true in thy case who aimest at Contemplation, seeing whatsoever hindereth and letteth thy soul most from the feeling and knowing of God, oughteth to be most grievous and painful to thee. But a venial sin of thy own letteth thee more from the feeling and perfect love of Jesus Christ than any other man's sins can do, be they never so great.

It follows, therefore, that thou shouldst rise more in thy heart against thyself to hate and condemn in thyself all manner of sin which letteth thee from the sight of God, more than against the faults of other men; for if thy heart be clean from thy own sins, verily the sins of other men will not hurt thee. If, therefore, thou wilt find rest here and in heaven, do thou (according to the counsel of one of the holy Fathers) every day ask of thyself: What am I? and judge no man.


Who are not to tell others of their faults.

But thou wilt object, how may this be, seeing it is a deed of charity to tell men of their faults, and a deed of mercy to admonish them that they may mend?

To this I answer that in my mind, that to thee or any other that hath taken on them the state of a contemplative life, it belongeth not to leave the watching over thyself to behold and blame other men, unless there should be great need, so that a man were in danger to perish without it.


And who are.

But those men that are active and have authority and charge of others, are bound by their office and by way of charity to look into, inquire and rightly to judge and correct other men's faults; not out of a desire and delight to punish them, but only for need, with the fear of God and in His name, and for the love of the salvation of their souls. Other men also who are active and have no care or charge of other men are bound to admonish other men of their faults out of charity only, and that when the sin is deadly and cannot well be corrected by another, and there is hope of amendment by being admonished else it is better to let it alone.

That this is good doctrine may be gathered by the practices of St John, who was a Contemplative, and St Peter, who was an Active man. For when our Lord at His last Supper with His disciples, at the motion of St Peter to St John, told St John how Judas should betray Him, St John told it not to St Peter, though he asked him, but turned him, and laid his head upon Christ's breast, and became ravished through love into the contemplation of the Divinity and divine secrets; and that so pleasingly and beneficially to himself that he forgot both Judas and St Peter, teaching thereby other Contemplatives how in the like occasion they should behave themselves.


Not to entertain suspicions of those that lead an active life.

By this that hath been said thou mayest learn neither to judge other men nor conceive willingly against them any evil suspicions, but love them, nor see any faults in them, but worship in thy heart such as lead Active lives in the world, and suffer many tribulations and temptations; which thou sitting in thy house feelest naught of; and they endure very much labour and care, and take much pains for their own and other men's sustenance, and many of them had rather (if they might) serve God (as thou dost) in bodily rest and quietness. Nevertheless, they in the midst of their worldly business, avoid many sins, which thou, if thou wert in their state, shouldst fall into, and they do many good deeds, which thou canst not do. There is no doubt but many do thus, but which they be, thou knowest not; and therefore it's good for thee to worship62 them all, and set them all in thy heart above thyself as thy betters, and cast thyself down at their feet, as being the vilest and lowest in thy own sight. For there is neither dread nor danger in making thyself never so low beneath others, though in the sight of God, at the same time, thou hast more grace than others; but danger there is in being too high, and lifting up thyself in thy thoughts willingly above any other man, though he were the most wretched and the most sinful caitiff that is in the earth; for our Lord saith: He that humbleth himself shall be exalted, and he that exalteth himself shall be brought low.63

This part of humility doth it behove thee to have in thy beginning; and by it, and for the grace, shalt thou come to the perfection of it, and so of all other virtues. For whoso hath one virtue, hath all other virtues; as much as thou hast of humility, so much hast thou of charity, of patience, and of other virtues; though they be not shown or appear outwardly. Be, therefore, busy to get humility, and hold it fast, for it is the first and the last of all other virtues.



The first, as being the foundation, as saith St Augustine: If thou think to build a high house of virtues, lay first a deep foundation of humility. Also, it is the last; for it is the maintainer and conserver of all other virtues. St Gregory saith: He that gathereth (or striveth to keep) virtues without humility, is like him that maketh or carrieth the powder of spices in the wind. Do thou never so good deeds, fast, watch, or anything else, if thou hast not humility, it is naught which thou dost.
How to get humility.

Nevertheless, if thou feelest not this humility in thy heart with affection, as thou wishest, do as thou mayest, humble thyself in will, by reasoning and arguing with thyself, judging that by right thou shouldst be so humble, and think of thyself as I have said, albeit thou do not so feel it within thee, and in that respect hold and esteem thyself the verier wretch, that thou canst not feel thyself to be that which in truth thou art. And if thou do so, though thy flesh rise against it, and will not assent to thy will, be not too much daunted, nor troubled, but bear with and suffer such false feelings of thy flesh, as a pain, and then despise and reprove that feeling, and break down that rising of thy heart, as if thou wouldst be well contented to be spurned and trodden under other men's feet. So by the grace of Jesus Christ, through stedfast thinking on the humility of His precious Manhood, shalt thou much abate the stirrings of pride; and the virtue of humility, that was first only in thy naked will, shall be turned into feeling of affection. Without which virtue, either in true will, or in feeling of affection, whoso disposeth himself to serve God in a contemplative life, like to a blind man, he will stumble, and never attain thereto. The higher he climbeth by bodily penance, and other virtues, and hath not this humility, the lower he falleth. For as St Gregory saith: He that cannot perfectly despise himself, he hath never yet found the humble wisdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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