It is… necessary to establish all virtues, not only chastity and temperance, but also patience, gentleness, charity, humility, and all others. This is not effected in one particular way but in many ways, which differ according to individual disposition. It is sometimes fostered by prayer, meditation, and good works, while a person may sometimes prove himself by enduring hunger, cold, shame, disgrace, and other troubles for love of virtue and truth…
One reason for this fact may be that our Lord Jesus Himself is the supreme Master of this craft and the supreme healer of spiritual sickness, without whom we can do nothing. It is therefore reasonable to require that a man should follow and practice what He teaches and inspires. But a master who can only teach his pupil one lesson has little knowledge to impart, and a doctor who prescribes one medicine for all ailments has little learning. So our Lord Jesus, who is wise and good, reveals His wisdom and goodness to His disciples in different ways, and gives to each soul the particular remedy best suited to its need. A further reason is that if there were one particular way by which a person might come to the perfect love of God, a man might imagine that he could attain it by his own efforts, in the same way that a merchant makes his profit by his own effort. But the love of God cannot be attained in this way, for one who wishes to serve God wisely and love him perfectly must desire God as his sole reward.
But no creature can deserve to possess God through its own unaided efforts, for even if the physical and spiritual exertions of a single man were to equal those of all creation, he would not on that account deserve God as his reward. For God is supreme bliss and infinite goodness, and immeasurably transcends everything that mankind can merit, so that He cannot be won by man’s own efforts, like some material reward.
God is free, and gives Himself to whom He wills and when He wills, and not for any particular achievement or at any particular time. For though a person may do his utmost throughout his life, he can never attain the perfect love of Jesus until the Lord Jesus Himself freely gives it. On the other hand, He gives this love only to those who exert themselves to the utmost, and would do even more if they could.
It seems clear, then, that neither grace alone without full support from the soul, nor a soul’s individual efforts unsupported by grace, can bring it to reformation in feeling—a reformation grounded in perfect love and charity.
But God’s grace allied to man’s efforts fosters the blessed fervor of perfect love in a soul, a grace only granted in its fullness to a soul that is truly humble, and stands in awe of God.
Consequently one who is not humble and zealous cannot attain this reformation in feeling, since one who is not completely humble cannot see himself as he is. For instance, he may do all the good deeds that he can, and he may fast, watch, wear a hair shirt, and practice all kinds of bodily penance; he may perform all the outward works of mercy for his neighbor, or all the inward duties of prayer, contrition, and meditation; but if he rests content with these and relies on them, regarding them so highly that he presumes on his own merits and thinks himself good, gracious, holy, and virtuous, he still lacks humility. Even though he says and thinks that all that he does is due to God’s grace and not to himself, he still lacks humility, because he will not yet renounce all credit for his good deeds, nor make himself truly poor in spirit and know himself to be nothing. And until grace enables a soul to recognize its own nothingness, and, having seen the truth in Jesus, to drop all pretence of personal merit for its good actions, it is not perfectly humble.
What is humility but truthfulness? There is no real difference. For grace enables a humble soul to see that Jesus does everything, and that the soul itself does nothing but allow Jesus to work through it as He wills. But one who is guided solely by human reason and is unaware of any alternative form of guidance finds it very hard—indeed, almost impossible and unreasonable—to do good actions and then to ascribe all merit for them to Jesus and discount his own part. Nevertheless, one who has a spiritual perception of truth knows this to be wholly true and completely reasonable. Indeed, anyone having this perception will never do less good on this account, but will be spurred to a greater and wholehearted activity, both in body and soul. This may be one reason why some people strain and torture their unhappy bodies with harsh penance all their lives, and are constantly reciting prayers, psalms, and other devotions, but never come to feel the love of God in their souls, while others seem to do so in a short time and with less strain. The reason is that the former lack this humility of which I speak.
On the other hand, a person who takes no action at all cannot experience this grace. The idle man thinks to himself, ‘Why should I bother? Why should I pray or meditate, watch or fast? Why should I undertake bodily penance in order to win this grace when it cannot be obtained except by the free gift of grace? I shall continue as I am, a man of the world, and I shall not adopt any of these bodily or spiritual exercises until God gives it. For if He is willing to give it, He does not require me to do anything; and however much or little I do, He will give it me. And if He does not will to give it, I shall never obtain it however hard I try.’
But anyone who adopts this attitude can never be fully reformed, because he deliberately chooses worldly idleness, and renders himself incapable of receiving the gift of grace. He refuses to rouse himself either spiritually to a lasting desire and longing for Jesus, or physically to perform his exterior duties. So he cannot receive this grace.
Therefore one who has no real humility and will not bestir himself either inwardly alone, through deep fervour, lasting desire, and regular prayer and meditation, or else through both inward and outward activities, cannot be spiritually reformed to the likeness of God.
-Walter Hilton, The Ladder of Perfection, ii.21, (Late 14th century spiritual teacher)