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Nothing about humility sounded good when I was first taught about it. It seemed that you had to be dishonest about your own talents and strengths, downplaying any good that you did, and emphasizing your faults. How was that a virtue? My misconception has been challenged by learning about the lives of saints, especially St. Therese and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. In their lives, I see humility lived in a beautiful, relatable way that I want to imitate.
St. Jane Frances was married and very much in love with her husband, who then tragically died in a hunting accident before she was 30. The rest of her life, she struggled with crippling depression. Through the kind, gentle direction of her spiritual director, the now St. Francis de Sales, she lived a life of holiness through this suffering. Francis would encourage her to pay attention to God’s love and to doing good acts for others, rather than focusing on her own thoughts. This path never cured her depression, though she became known for her empathy and gentleness, no doubt formed by the pain she herself experienced.
Together, the two saints founded a religious order, the Visitation Sisters. The spirituality of the order was much the same as what Jane was living under Francis’ direction, a life dedicated to loving God and neighbor. This order’s charism is particularly devoted to the virtues of humility and gentleness. In that humility, they accepted women whose health and limits would not have allowed them to join more austere orders. In her writings to Francis, she poured out her sufferings and struggles. In her writings to her sisters in community, we see beautiful encouragement that was the very fruit of her own sufferings and ill health. The grief and pain in her life was a source of empathy and compassion for the women in her care. She advised them:
“All God wants is our heart. And he is more pleased when we value our uselessness and weakness out of love and reverence for his holy will, than when we do violence to ourselves and perform great works of penance. Now, you know that the peak of perfection lies in our wanting to be what God wishes us to be: so, having given you a delicate constitution, he expects you to take care of it and not demand of it what he himself, in his gentleness, does not ask for.”St. Jane Francis de Chantal
This aspect of Jane Frances’ life was very similar to St. Thérèse. Her little way of holiness, which is such a gift to the Church, was the fruit of her own limits and most especially, the anxiety she lived with. Thérèse asked for Jesus to fill the needs and desires of her heart, and to make up for the places where she failed. She was always certain that Jesus, in His Love, would make up for everything she lacked! As she said: “The very moment God sees us fully convinced of our nothingness, He reaches out His hand to us.”
St. Jane said something very similar too: “Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to Him. That is all the doing you need to worry about.”
The humility both these women lived wasn’t one of debasing themselves or downplaying their own goodness, but of keeping their identity rooted in God. They knew they were beloved daughters of God. Nothing else mattered. This certainty, this humility, gave them freedom to depend on God and to accept the limits and struggles in their lives as good —or at least, as places where God works for good.
Since reading about St. Jane Frances a few years ago, I’ve had much more peace with the struggles in my life. I live with depression and anxiety, and much of my adult life has been affected by the limits it places on me or the burden of therapy and interventions for healing. Her words about keeping your eyes on God and leaving the doing to Him has been encouraging, especially in difficult moments. I ground myself in the knowledge that God knows the landscape of my days, He loves me as I am. And holiness, for me, includes the very real and tangible struggles of living with mental illness. Through St. Jane and The Little Way I’ve learned that humility is not about downplaying my strengths and emphasizing my faults. It is taking all of my strengths and weaknesses, my successes and limits (that I still wish weren’t there), and giving them to God, trusting that He can —and is —working good in all of it. I am His, and that is what matters most.
Micole Amalu is the founder and director for The Face of Mercy, an organization dedicated to mental health education and advocacy within the Catholic Church. This mission brings together her own struggles with mental illness, an educational background in psychology, and her passion for helping the Church live out Christ’s mission better! One of her favorite parts of this work is sharing stories of saints who lived with mental illness, because all of us are capable of holiness.