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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Praying in Humility and Mercy

April 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Conversion, Divine Mercy, Humility, Prayer

Is it possible to pray out of misery without falling into self-pity?   The question, posed by one of our readers, indicates a grave evil confronted in prayer.   Misery is the demeaning absence of God’s love, a love we have rejected.  Without the love God created us to know, we are restless and in our restlessness we are inclined to mistake our own bloated egos for God.  The gravity of such self-occupation is a perilous trap, a pit of escapist fantasies,  rash judgments, bitter resentments, self-loathing — not to mention self-pity on top of it all. Blown this way and that by these out of control storms raging in our hearts, enslaved to selfish irrationality, we are locked into a conversation with our own tormented thoughts.   Only the saving Truth sent by the Father can liberate us from this psychological hell.

Christian prayer conceives humility. Against the illusion of self-sufficiency we love to entertain, when we realize the dangerous peril we are in without God’s love, a humble cry of the heart begins to take shape.  We feel the need to call out to the Lord because, on some level, we realize that without God’s love we cannot deal with ourselves. It is only by the humility Christ crucified gives us in our misery that we begin to shake the shackles of self-pity imprisoning our prayer.   The great saints and mystics offer us powerful insights into the humility of prayer.  In particular, on this point, we can turn to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his treatise on Humility and Pride.

Before he explores the regress into pride against which Christians must struggle, Saint Bernard offers a meditation on the Ladder of Humility we find in the Rule of Saint Benedict.   To understand this meditation, it is helpful to remember that the word “humility” derives from “humus” which means fertile soil.  This kind of soil is tilled  and made vulnerable to the seeds God scatters, vulnerable to a new fruitfulness.  Humility implies the patient suffering of one’s own brokenness laid bear by overwhelming trials.  It is the way of our Crucified Master who humbled Himself unto death.  Behind Saint Bernard’s treatment of humility and pride is a word of hope: when we raise ourselves up by love informed faith, the difficult truths we need to accept about ourselves do not pose an obstacle to deeper intimacy with Christ, but instead offer us opportunities to draw close to Him who abides in the heights of humility.

Whereas we tend to think of humility as a kind of weakness, Saint Bernard surprises us by describing the virtue as a height into which we ascend and from which alone we can see what is true. We do not become humble all at once but only as we accept the truth about ourselves to a greater and greater degree, like ascending a ladder.  The more we accept the truth about ourselves, the more vulnerable to the love of the Lord we become.  In Saint Benard’s thought, the apex of Truth and Love coincide in the Savior.  Eternal Truth leans over the top of this ladder of humility, reaching out to us and gazing on us in love.   Pulled up by grace, rung by rung, our afflicted humanity is carried to the heights of humility as we progress into the Christ’s gaze of love.

To make sure we understand that this progress is not by way of our own self-reliant psychological feats, Saint Bernard explains that this ascent into the gaze of the Lord is made by way of ecstasy.   Although today we are inclined to think of ecstasy as a sublime but esoteric experience, Saint Bernard has in mind a different understanding of this term.   In the Father’s of the Church, ecstasy is a going out from self in which I leave behind the old ground on which I rooted my existence (from the Greek: ek stasis, or in Latin: excessus).  Christian prayer actually sees the truth about personal misery only because it gains the vantage point of Risen Lord’s loving gaze, and this by sheer grace.  As St. Bernard explains, “What is meant by this ecstasy? It is that state in which [the Christian] is carried away from himself and clings to the truth and is able to judge himself (1 Cor. 11:31).”  (On Humility and Pride, V.16)

This new realization of the love of the Lord is a surprising opportunity for repentance and conversion, an unexpected moment of renouncing of self and following of Him, an unmerited gift that confronts our attachments to both self-pity and self-loathing.   Beholding the One whom we have pierced, the One who reveals to us the love of the Father, this evokes a change of heart, the surrender of all kinds of rash judgments to which we have bound ourselves, a pierced sobriety of thought, a new compassion that does not allow us to comfortably indulge the regurgitated bitterness we have towards others or ourselves.   Following the humility of Jesus Crucified means we die to our old self-centered way of thinking and living so that we can be raised up in the Risen Lord’s life and thought.

The pattern Saint Bernard sets in the first steps of this ladder sets the tone for the whole journey of humility.   Even more, it opens up a beautiful and difficult mystery that lives in Christian prayer.  It is a pattern from selfish self-centeredness to compassion and empathy for the plight of others.  It is a pilgrimage out of a psychological hell and into the peace of Christ.

In the first step of humility we realize how much we need the Lord in the face of our own misery, our own false judgments.  If we do not humbly suffer the truth about the lack of love that lives in our hidden judgments and feelings, we do not realize how much we need to look to Christ to save us.  If ecstasy is a gift of grace, we do not know we need to ask for it until we realize the peril we are in.  As the Lord shows us our sinfulness, He does so not so that we will beat ourselves up for things we cannot change, but only that we might accept responsibility for what we have done and humbly ask His forgiveness and the forgiveness of those we have hurt.

This first step of repentance from sin stings, but the second step of humility involves even more painful realization: we are all unreliable liars.  Bernard explains it is with great compassion and mercy that we realize “All men are liars” (Psalm 116:11).   Until we progress in humility, we do not realize how demeaning and destructive our unfaithfulness to each other is.   In this step, without anger or accusation, we become aware that the same misery that entraps us is also entrapping everyone we know in an unbearable plight.   Together with this realization, there is also a thought of hope that sustains us as we keep our eyes fixed on the One who gazes on us in love: although we are all prisoners of a common misery, Christ Jesus truly is our salvation.  His love is sufficient not only for me but also for my brothers and sisters who struggle along with me.  

Mercy comes from misericordia — it means to have one’s heart pierced by the suffering of another, so pierced that there is no way to be indifferent to it.   Mercy suffers the misery of one’s neighbor because it sees the neighbor’s dignity.  Mercy is love that goes out to implicate itself in the plight of another so that one’s brother or sister does not have to suffer alone.   It weeps over the misery of humanity because there are some things so heart-breaking that, once we see them, not to weep would be callous.  Such tears are the food of prayer — because they are the tears God shares with us. What an suffering ecstasy this is — the ecstasy of the Cross!  With ever deeper humility, we progress from an awareness of our own sin to an awareness of how much the world needs salvation.

How do we pray out of misery?   How do we confront our own self-pity?   Even in the very first moment of progress into the humility of Christ, we move from offering the Lord our own brokenness to offering God the brokenness of the whole world.  As part of this graced-suffering ecstasy, Christian prayer implicates us in the plight of our brothers and sisters even as it implicates us more and more in the love Christ.   The Lamb of God is the focus of Christian prayer, the living Mystery that comes to us in the form of a gift, a heart-stinging gift that can only be welcomed with faith and love. By simply submitting our tormented thoughts to the Lord and trusting in Him who gazes on us in love, we learn compassion and come to understand the pain that lives in the hearts of those we love.   Even when they have hurt us gravely and (even more) when we have hurt them, even as we are tempted in all kinds of ways to hang on to and even entertain thoughts not worthy of prayer, we discover the gift of intercession, that prayer that cries out for mercy the cry that Mercy Himself does not fail to hear.

[Excerpt from Bernard of Clairvaux: selected works, translator G.R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987) 114.]


Art: Gottfried Bernhard Göz: Design for an altapiece at Birnau, depicting St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1749. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum; PD-US; Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean of St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese for over twenty years directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was eventually appointed Academic Dean for nine years. He is an associate professor of theology and a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students and contemplatives about the spiritual life. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • LizEst

    Thank you for this great post, Dr. Lilles, and for the link to Benedict’s Ladder of Humility. Great food for thought. Considering the humility of Christ and our Blessed Mother, we would do well to imitate them and pray to become more and more humble. I, for one, could use more grace in this area. “Lord, increase this virtue in me…and keep me from false humility. ‘A humble, contrite heart, O Lord, you will not spurn’ (Psalm 51:19b).”

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I love your thoughts on Mary and Jesus. There are riches of humility in their hearts of which one could spend all of one’s life pondering and barely scratch the surface. My heart goes to the same psalm as yours – here is a musical interpretation of it:

      • LizEst

        Thank you for sharing this. It’s beautiful. I love John Michael Talbott’s music and have a few of his tapes but nothing recent. So, this was new to me.

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing a very beautiful message in this blog post! This is how powerful and important prayers are. It is only through prayers that we are heard by the Lord. Surrender yourself to Him, trust Him wholeheartedly and ask for His mercy and He will surely hear you. May God bless you!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Yes, you are right … we need to be more confident in His Mercy because His merciful love is more powerful than our sin. As Pope Francis said – God never gets tired for forgiving us… we are the one’s who get tired of asking for forgiveness.

  • Mary@42

    Oh, Dear. This one I need to digest slowly. Too deep but I pray the Holy Spirit can open my simple mind to benefit from the rich Teaching.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Saint Bernard gives us so much to think about… I am so glad you are taking time to ponder his wisdom. It goes into the deep places of our heart.

  • rjk123

    Thank you, This is so helpful. There is so much to study and ponder. Misery is a grave evil that we encounter in prayer and indicates an absence of and a rejection of God and a bloated ego. I had mistakenly believed that when you have talked about misery in the past, you meant the sadness and grief felt in prayer over our own sinfulness and that of the world, which leads to gratitude and joy in the mercy of God. What you have written really is convicting against self-involvement of any kind, which is a subtle and subversive pride, rather than humility, and which cuts us off from other people and from charity or empathy for others. Thank you.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I am so glad this is helpful. Saint Bernard has a way of challenging us and keeping us rooted in the truth. Every time I read him, I find all kinds of treasures that help me pray.

    • $1650412

      Brilliantly stated, Rachel!

  • Therese Marie

    Perhaps I am not understanding this post. The definition of misery in this post seems much different than what Jesus and St. Faustina refer to as misery in the writings of St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion. Please help me understand.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear Therese Marie,
      Thank you for taking this post so seriously that you wrestle with its meaning, and I hope my own shallowness on these matters is not an obstacle for you. I am not sure I can answer your concern because you may be seeing something more deeply than I can – people of prayer often see things more deeply than do theologians. It is why the Church needs your discerning voice and dedication to the Lord. Misery is a deep abyss — but deeper still is the mystery of Mercy. Although there are subtle differences in the use of terms throughout our tradition, Saint Faustina in her conversations with the Lord was very concerned about surface of misery this post points to. In fact, her humility is captivating. But I would not be surprised if you see other depths as well – our misery is so great. However much we see of sin and its effects in us, the riches of Christ are so much more and because of His great love, by faith our misery is the place where the Lord’s victory over death is made known, where the glory of the Father is revealed. My the Lord continue to provide you the grace you need to plummet these inexhaustible depths.
      In Christ,

      • rjk123

        Are you saying–and would St. Faustina and especially Jesus say–that we are never free of our misery? That the difference between the grave sin of misery and misery that brings grace is that we bring it in all its truth (as much as we can be aware of it) to the Lord, fully trusting His mercy. And at the same time bearing the pain in union with His suffering and on behalf of sinners who do trust the Lord and also those who reject Him. And is it possible that some souls feel the great pain of the misery of others, especially those who reject the Lord, on behalf of these sinners and in union with Our Lord’s suffering trusting and receiving His Divine Mercy on their behalf? Is it possible that there are quiet, emotional souls who are called to great hidden suffering on behalf of others? Who bring it to Divine Mercy trusting souls to Him? That it is not indulgent self-pity but instead obedience and sacrifice that brings peace to that suffering soul and unknown graces to other sinners? Rachel

        • Anthony_Lilles

          There will be a day when every tear will be wiped away – when there will be a joy that we cannot even begin to imagine in this present life. Even so, even though it is disguised in suffering, we have a real foretaste of this joy when we bear with one another out of reverence for Christ. It is possible for souls to bear each others misery, even the misery of sin. This is what the Lord did for us on the Cross and this is what we participate in when we enter into the mystery Saint Paul points to when he says, “I make up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). So, yes, it is possible that there are souls who offer themselves to Divine Mercy and accepting graces that others have rejected so that the glory of God’s love might be known in the world. Those souls who do this have lifted up out of self-pity and self-loathing and brought into a great silence where the Lord renews His whole saving mystery in and through them – such souls live in the heart of the Church and we should be very grateful to God for them!
          In Christ,

          • rjk123

            Forgive me for belaboring this, but I get from just about every other thing you have written the same thing that Therese Marie wrote–that our misery is all we have that is really our own. If we are truly seeking the Lord and His mercy, how can misery be a grave evil? Isn’t it a constant of the human condition? And isn’t our sorrow over it sincere and appropriate and not simply self-pity or self-loathing, which is either sinful or simply a fault or weakness? And is it possible that this sense of unworthiness is a thorn the Lord never takes completely away from some souls for His reasons? And therefore those souls must experience those emotions for their own sins and for those of others in obedience to the Lord? The sadness and grief and the awareness of one’s own weakness and inadequacies, then, are not a “poor me” sort of thing but simply truth and something to offer to the Lord. Particularly when they are only between the Lord and the soul, who to everyone else appears full of joy and peace. I just think some of us are not blessed with a strong ego, but we must praise the Lord and be grateful to Him anyway. The challenge is not to be asking for comfort and reassurance from our spiritual director and from our posts here, but to be at peace, knowing in faith and in His consolations that He loves us as we are. We must learn to seek comfort from God alone. Rachel

          • Anthony_Lilles

            Dear Rachel,

            You are not belaboring this at all. You are clarifying… which is very important. Misery is a grave evil because if it is not addressed by God’s mercy, it will engulf us. As I originally wrote, misery is a lack or absence of love that we ought to have… but do not. You are right to say that misery is a very sad constant on this side of the veil — everyone suffers it in different ways. Some suffer this perilous plight in ignorance, unaware of their loss of dignity and alienation. Some suffer this consequence of disobedience in faith, moved by God’s saving love to conversion. Still others, moved by the love of Christ, rush to enter into this suffering in an effort to rescue the dignity of their neighbor …. they passionately believe in extending Christ’s work of redemption so that no one might suffer this horrible distress alone.

            Together in our humanity, we do not have a love that ought to be in our hearts. This is the consequence of sin – primordial and personal. Sin is a rejection of God’s love, a rejection that always gravely harms our dignity and a rejection that resounds in the Heart of God.

            This rejected love that we ought to have is eternal, a divine love commensurate with being in the image and likeness of God. The greater the loss, the greater the suffering and misery. We have lost something infinite and eternal… if this diminishment of our humanity is not addressed, our suffering will be infinite and eternal. So the lack of love in us is not a benign vacuum, it is a malignant disease… like an acute illness is an acute lack of health. Without being able to know, to enjoy and draw on God’s love for our existence, we are robbed of our dignity and vulnerable to every kind of evil.

            This ought to be heart-breaking, but most of the time we are utterly indifferent to it because we are ignorant of the great purpose for which we were created, the great dignity that belongs to us. We are like the prodigal son before he came to his senses: feeding the pigs and jealous of what the pigs are eating… Like the man beaten up by robbers and left to die on the side of the road … who will rescue us from our plight? It is interesting to note that both the Merciful Father and the Good Samaritan have something in common: when the father sees his son and when the good Samaritan sees the man left to die… the Bible says in both cases that their hearts were pierced.

            Mercy means to be pierced by the misery of another and moved to do something about it, to no longer be indifferent to the other’s distress but to need alleviate the indignity the neighbor suffers, to implicate oneself in another’s plight no matter the cost because one knows in one’s own heart that this person before me must not suffer alone. Compunction indicates this “being pierced to the heart” that mercy requires.

            Our hearts can only be pierced by the plight of another to the degree that they have been pierced by the plight God has placed Himself in for our sake. Faith does not make the consequence of sin magically disappear. Instead, it it gives us a way to deal with it so that the misery raging within us does not pull us down forever. God does not want us to feel bad about ourselves or to beat ourselves up in our shame — by to repentent and to turn back to Him and to begin again. Out of our shame and disappointments, out of our sense of inadequacy and weakness, out of our emptiness and lack of God — the Lord longs for us to seek His Face, the gaze of love He has for us. He longs for us to know we do not suffer alone and that He cherishes us — even to the point of suffering death Himself. A heart that sees His Face, that contemplates the abyss of His Love, such a heart offers its pain to Him in a simple movement of love, an act of trust, knowing that despite what it feels, even when this is overwhelming and even crushing, God’s love is even more immense, accomplishing something even more wonderful through the space our trust gives Him in which to work.

            So you are very insightful: the sadness and grief over one’s failures and even the failures of others are difficult movements of the heart to offer with simple trust to the Lord. When we feel this sorrow, this inadequacy, it is a grace for which to praise Him. Yet there are times when in this effort, one is so overcome by doubts and tormented by all kinds of questions, offering praise is impossible unless God provides special help, unless He sends a merciful soul to help us on our way. So the more we realize out misery, the more we need mercy.

            This is where a good spiritual director should offer reassurance… because God has willed that His reassurance to us comes through the Mystical Body, the Church. A good spiritual director offers a word of hope, a reason to hope when hope seems impossible. A good spiritual director is able to do this because he or she is open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, the gift of counsel and by this gift has gained access into the heart of another and sees the misery that is there. A good spiritual director could never bear that a soul might suffer this alone and so begs Christ to speak His wisdom even when no words can be found.

            I am not sure this is clarifying at all… but I appreciate your thoughtfulness and engagement in these questions.

            In Christ,

          • rjk123

            I am learning a lot on this topic! What the struggle is exactly, I don’t know. But it’s very deep. Thank you so much for your patience and your willingness to teach and share. Rachel

      • Therese Marie

        Dr. Lilles, Thank you for being so kind!

    • rjk123

      Would you elaborate on your understanding of misery from your reading of the writings of St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion? I’m struggling mightily with all this. Thanks. Rachel

      • Therese Marie

        Dear Rachel,

        The only thing that truly does belong to us is our misery. All our gifts and talents come from God, but our misery is the one thing that we truly own that we can offer to God. Jesus and St. Faustina said the greater the sinner, and the greater the misery, the greater the right to Divine Mercy. I highly recommend St. Faustina’s Diary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The promoters of the Divine Mercy Devotion are the Marians found
        here: Marian(dot)org or here thedivinemercy(dot)org. I hope that helps. :-)

        • rjk123

          Thank you. That helps. And I will follow your suggestions. Rachel

          • Therese Marie

            You might also like Dr. Taylor Marshall’s blog:

  • Diane

    It is such a relief to read the quote above “the difficult truths we need to accept about ourselves do not pose an obstacle to deeper intimacy with Christ, but instead offer us opportunities to draw close to Him who abides in the heights of humility”.

    .. this gives me so much peace! Being reminded that I can draw close to Him always, not just when I feel like I’m in a better place, spiritually speaking. This “love informed truth” is so hopeful especially when dealing with arid times.

    thank you.

    • Dan Burke

      This is an interesting reality isn’t it? If we think about it in terms of how we see our children it becomes much more understandable. For instance, if a child is obviously doing all she can to please her parents but does so in an imperfect way, how does a good parent respond? Most would respond with joy, reward, and encouragement. The tough challenge is balancing this against a corresponding truth – that we can hinder our relationship with God through our sins, attachments etc. So, if we are doing all we know, we can rightly assume the smile of God. If we are purposefully holding back abandonment to Him, we can expect a proportionately diluted or hindered relationship. So – I much prefer the former – abandon all, with imperfection, and encounter the full embrace of God as we place nothing in the way of His love.

      • rjk123

        Thank you for this reassurance. It makes me think of a prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman that he wrote when he was feeling alone and useless. He expressed His trust in the Lord and said, basically, that he would keep on keeping on and trust the results to the Lord. He prayed: “I give myself to Thee. I trust thee wholly. . . I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see — I ask not to know — I ask simply to be used.” Rachel

      • Diane

        This does clarify God’s view of us & yes, it is an interesting reality! Thank you Dan. It seems the more I learn about His love for us, the more I feel I’m barely scratching the surface of its vastness. That is what makes it all so fascinating and joyful. He is amazing.

  • BeckitaMaria

    Thank you, Dr. Lilles, for such a rich post whetting my thirst for the Living God!

    I am saturated in refreshing hope at this thought: “We do not become humble all at once but only as we accept the truth about ourselves to a greater and greater degree, like ascending a ladder. The more we accept the truth about ourselves, the more vulnerable to the love of the Lord we become.” Deepening the acceptance of the truth about myself is a primal wound of love in which “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” (Psalm 42:7)

    Blessed be God for His everflowing waves of Mercy and His neverending billows of Love! Ave Maria!