Several years ago, I started saying a novena to St. Michael. There were several serious situations that needed rescue, and I thought, there’s clearly a battle going on here; why not go to the guy with the giant wings and the big, flaming sword?
Imagine my surprise when the novena talked mostly about . . . humility.
St. Michael the Archangel, we honor you as a powerful protector of the Church and guardian of our souls. Inspire us with your humility, courage and strength that we may reject sin and perfect our love for our Heavenly Father.
In your strength and humility, slay the evil and pride in our hearts so that nothing will keep us from God.
And the closing prayer is even more striking:
St. Michael the Archangel, you are the prince of angels but in your humility you recognized that God is God and you are but His servant. Unlike satan, you were not overcome with pride but were steadfast in humility. Pray that we will have this same humility.
It is in the spirit of that humility that we ask for your intercession for our petitions…
A strange virtue to emphasize for a figure we’re used to thinking of as a conquering hero. Why would the prayer stress Michael’s humility?
One reason is to draw out a contrast between him and his virtue, and their opposites. We’ve all heard very often that Satan’s downfall was pride. Without thinking too deeply, we might be led to believe that this means Satan just got too confident, and God had to squish him down into hell to avoid competition. This is, of course, a comic-book version of cosmology, and has nothing to do with actual theology.
Let’s be clear: When we talk about the sin of pride, whether it’s Satan’s fateful cosmic sin or our own homegrown variety, we don’t mean self confidence, or believing in oneself, or even vanity. We mean an inordinate love of self. Literally inordinate, as in out of order, as in putting oneself in a place where only God belongs. Pride means that, for all the things for which we should look to God, we look to ourselves, instead.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you do it often enough, it literally ruins your life. When pride is really serious, we look only to ourselves, and never to God. This is why it takes an angel with a sword to fight back against the sin of pride. It’s a big deal.
Humility is the opposite of this horrible error. Humility is when we have things in the right order: We know when to look to God and when to look to ourselves. We understand what our place is in relation to God. We understand who we are. We do not confuse ourselves with God, or try to take on roles that belong to him.
I’m struck how, in the prayer, it describes a sort of battle that takes place not in heaven, but in every human soul: the battle between pride and humility. Unlike angels, we live in time, and don’t make cosmic choices for all eternity. Instead, we make choice after choice after choice, building habits, growing in virtue, failing, backsliding, starting again.
And I’m realizing, as I get older, how often these battles aren’t always a matter of good vs. evil, of the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil vs. the human soul. Sometimes they are! But some of the struggles we find ourselves fighting are, perhaps, a different battle in disguise.
In his spiritual memoir He Leadeth Me, Fr Walter Ciszek speaks of the dreadful shame and horror he felt after he cracked under the pressure of psychological torture in the Russian gulag. But eventually he came to see that his very failure was a kind of release for him — a chance to stop looking to himself for strength and courage, and instead to depend totally and radically on God.
The battle he had been fighting wasn’t exterior at all. It was actually within himself. It had been hard to see, because what he was struggling to do was God’s work; but he was struggling to do it using his own strength and perseverance, rather than relying on God’s. That’s why he identifies his struggle as a lack of humility.
“Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to His will is what the virtue of humility is all about,” he says.
“For humility is truth, the full truth, the truth that encompasses our relation to God the Creator and through Him to the world He has created and to our fellowmen. And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested. It is self that is humiliated; there would be no ‘humiliation’ if we had learned to put self in its place, to see ourselves in proper perspective before God and other men. And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us. That was the terrible insight that dawned upon me in the cell at Lubianka as I prayed, shaken and dejected, after my experience with the interrogator.”
Later, he says:
“It was not the Church that was on trial in Lubianka. It was not the Soviet Government or the KGB versus Walter Ciszek. It was God versus Walter Ciszek.”
A strange battle indeed.
Sometimes, spiritual battles really are a matter of taking up our swords and fighting courageously against a clear evil in front of us. But sometimes they are more subtle, and more insidious than that. Sometimes the terrible pressure we feel is coming from the inside, as we try to maintain an agonized control, or illusion of control, over our own lives. It can’t be done. I do keep trying, but I know it can’t be done.
It’s God vs. me, and I at least know who I ought to want to win, even if I don’t always feel that way. St. Michael, come to our aid, and help us stop fighting God.
This essay was originally published under a different title in The Catholic Weekly on March 14, 2022.
St. Michael Icon image by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons