St. Benedict of Nursia and the Twelve Steps of Humility

In the seventh chapter of St. Benedict of Nursia’s holy Rule, the Father of Monks elucidates the steps of humility. Humility is a recurring theme of the saint’s Rule. It is the basis on which monks are distinguished from one another (2,21), rather than on the basis of favoritism or noble birth. It is why, for momentous decisions to be made in the monastery, the younger brothers are to have a say (3,3), since “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” Indeed, the brothers are to all “express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately.” Humility is among the tools for good works the saint discusses in the fourth chapter (4,42-42): “If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.” Humility is the foundation of, and is expressed in, the obedience to the authority of those God has placed over us, as St. Benedict notes in chapter 5. And it is the backbone of the restraint of speech that our Father in God calls his brothers to in chapter 6.

This humility, the saint says, is the ladder to which we ascend into heaven, but only by first descending. The sides of this ladder are our body and our soul, which are joined together by the twelve rungs St. Benedict will enumerate in chapter 7. In other words, humility is not merely an attitude of mind, a feeling of one’s soul, a disposition of one’s heart, it is, indeed, also what one does with one’s body, as evidenced in the rules concerning food and drink in chapters 39-41, as well as the specific manner in which an erring brother is received back into the community (chapter 29). Humility, indeed, is precisely why prayers are to be short and brief (chapter 20).

So let us see how it is that, with body and soul humbled, we may ascend to the Lord.

The first step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes (Ps 35 [36]:2) and never forgets it. He must constantly remember everything God has commanded, keeping in mind that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and all who fear God have everlasting life awaiting them. While he guards himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire, let him recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour (7,10-13).

For many, these words are precisely all that’s wrong with Christianity. But such a sentiment is deeply mistaken. First of all, there is nothing illegitimate about being fearful of the risks and consequences of certain behaviors. If I am standing on the precipice of a hundred foot ledge, I am not wrong to fearfully contemplate the consequences of stepping off the ledge with nothing but the clothes on my back and nothing soft on which to fall.

For some, the sheer notion that God would judge someone is a contradiction of the idea they have that God is a God of love. But one would counter, how is it love to force someone to do that which they have, for all their lives, willfully chosen not to do: love God in return? No, judgment is nothing less than God’s full and gracious love which respects us so much he will ratify our free decisions to reject his love for all eternity.

Secondly, it must be kept in mind that this ladder is, in its overall dynamic, progressive. Which is to say, though we begin in fear, we will not end in fear.

Though the ladder of humility is progressive, it may be too much to suggest that each step is strictly successive to its predecessor. But one still detects a general tenor of graduating proficiency as one progresses from the fear of God in the first step to that of the second:

The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires . . . (7,31)

I do not think it accidental that St. Benedict puts in front of us the truth of coming judgment before he asks of us to give up our will and desires. We are likely, if we think God’s love precludes his judgment, to think that God is little more than a doting grandfather who blesses all our wants and excuses all our faults. But there is no progress in the life of faith and sanctification if we are not shaken from our grip on our own will and desire. More to the point, it is precisely our own will and desires which are likely to lead us astray. Indeed, we have as our very own example, the Lord himself, whose entire life, eternal and earthly, is bound up with setting aside his will for the doing of his Father’s will. “I have come,” he says, “not to do my own will, but the will of the Father.”

And having given up our own will and desires, the third step comes naturally:

The third step of humility is that a man submits to his superior in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: He become obedient even to death (Phil 2:8). (7,34)

Again, we are not here subjecting ourselves to unhealthy psychological tricks. Humility is not the same things as low self-esteem. Indeed low self-esteem is precisely the antithesis of humility, for low self-esteem is just another more insidious and therefore dangerous form of pride. Low self-esteem is an inability to love ourselves as we are and as God loves us, but is, rather, an obsession with a self that does not measure up to its own exalted notion of itself. Low self-esteem may well be demonically engendered by the cruelty of parents and siblings, of peers and the psychoses of an incurably sick society, but it is, for all that, still pride turned inward.

So, having given up our own will and desires, we now at last can submit to the discernment of another, a father in God whom we can trust to bring us to God. (For St. Benedict’s requirements regarding the abbot’s character and ministry, cf. chapters 2 and 64; as well as for the deans, chapter 21; the cellarer, chapter 31; the prior, chapter 65; and the porter, chapter 66, of the Rule.)

But submission to another is never an easy road, so:

The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape. (7,35-36)

Who said the road of humility would be easy? But here again we bristle. We demand our rights, demand justice. But we forget the perfect example of our Lord how did not insist on his “rights” as God, but humbled himself and became as one of us. Our Lord was treated with the basest of injustices, yet he opened not his mouth, he did not call legions of angels to his side. He embraced suffering, he did not weaken, did not seek to escape.

But it is not always the case that we are treated unjustly. Perhaps we have indeed been given a task beyond our strength. The saint gives loving instruction in these matters in chapter 68 of the Rule:

A brother may be assigned a burdensome task or something he cannot do. If so he should, with complete gentleness and obedience, accept the order given him. Should he see, however, that the weight of the burden is altogether too much for his strength, then he should choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to his superior the reasons why he cannot perform the task. This he ought to do without pride, obstinacy or refusal. If after the explanation the superior is still determined to hold to his original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best for him. Trusting in God’s help, he must in love obey. [emphasis added]

This is perfectly keeping with the sentiment of the Prologue to the Rule, which in exhorting us to strictness of discipline in order to gain the heights of the Gospel life, recognizes the difficulty of the task, and encourages us: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace” (Prol. 41).

And if we do not insist on our rights, but embrace suffering, if we have given up our will and desires, if we have crucified pride, it follows then that we will have no need for concealing our sins.

The fifth step of humility is that a man does not conceal from his abbot any sinful thoughts entering his heart, or any wrongs committed in secret, but confesses them humbly. (7,44)

Here we must have the image of the loving physician of souls. If we conceal an infection, or a serious symptom, our physician cannot cure our ill, but indeed may misdiagnose our specific malady. And left untreated such an infection, such a cancer, can only eat away out our spiritual vitality, undoing the work we have done and that which God has done in us. Confession is the balm of the soul. The lancing is painful, but the healing is sweet.

Having confessed our sins and embraced suffering, what need will we have for seeking the highest positions and most envied of tasks?

The sixth step of humility is that a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given, (7,49)

This evaluation of ourselves as “poor and worthless” workmen has less to do with self-flagellation and more to do with the true assessment humility allows us to make of ourselves. What after all do we really have to offer the Lord? Even our best efforts are nothing more than what is required of us. All of it, every single thing we do, even the things we do with every fiber of our being engaged in the deepest felt and acted love we can muster for our Lord is, in the end, only our duty.

But very often we do not offer our best or our lovingest. We give grudgingly, with gritted teeth, handing over our deeds, but looking with longing back to the city on which rains fire. More to the point, we often do not give at all. We bite and devour, we seek to destroy, to acquire and hoard.

“Poor and worthless”? Yes, says humility. Yes.

The seventh step of humility is that a man not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value, humbling himself (7,51-52)

Of course. We have as our example among the greatest of Apostles, St. Paul, the chief of sinners. We pray these very words at the Liturgy each time Eucharist is served. We are the chief of sinners. But not in comparison to others. It is not, as my priest has chuckled, as though having been Christian for some time we’ve lost our status as chiefest of sinners to some of the new rookies who’ve just come on board. Oh, no, this comparison goes only one way, between myself and the Incarnate Lord. And in comparison to this most holy man and God, I am indeed darkest sin and blackest vice.

But lest we give way to despair here, we remember that we are bounded by grace, and that we are not yet at the ladder’s end. So we continue.

The eighth step of humility is that a monk does only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and the example set by his superiors. (7,55)

Tradition. Of course. Humility demands our adherence to Tradition. After all, what is our singular, limited perspective to that of the myriad of saints across time and place, in both heaven and earth? But, one might object, do we not have the Holy Spirit, too? Indeed. And does not the saint himself require that the most junior of the monks be allowed to offer counsel for serious matters affecting the monastery? Yes, of course. God does, indeed, speak through whom he will. And even the mouths of infants declare his praise.

But this is not a gift that humility seeks or takes to itself. For humility knows that our hearts are deceitful above all things, that we are quite adept at masking the truth about ourselves to ourselves, and even more that our inner voice is too often mistaken for that of the Lord. We must have the Tradition lest we deceive ourselves and are led astray into pain and torment and final judgment.

The next three steps all have to do with silence. Silence features regularly in the Rule. Indeed, all of chapter 6, on the restraint of speech, is given to it.

Let us follow the Prophet’s counsel: I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue. I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words (Ps 38 [39]:2-3). Here the Prophet indicates that there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence. For all the more reason, then, should evil speech be curbed so that punishment for sin may be avoided. Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written: In a flood of words you will not avoid sin (Prov 10:19); and elsewhere, The tongue holds the key to life and death (Prov 18:21). Speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen. Therefore, any requests to a superior should be made with all humility and respectful submission. We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind.

Ours is a culture psychotically afraid of silence. Noise, both mental and physical, visual and auditory, surrounds us. We drive with our radios on. We move about our homes, eat and play, sometimes even sleep, with the television on. And if it isn’t noise, it’s images. We are confronted with advertising on billboards, storefronts, the sides of buses, overhead on the subway. Bumper stickers, pins and buttons on backpacks. Everywhere there is stimulus: our eyes and ears are bombarded by noise.

And nearly all of it is empty. We talk about our sports teams, and scores and statistics; we relive the plot of the most popular television drama; we argue politics; we advocate mutual funds–and none of it gets connected to any whole, or any life worth living. We fritter away our lives on trivia, and fail to know why we are so restless and empty.

It would seem that St. Benedict has saved these last admonitions for the end, precisely because we need to be shaped and formed by the mortification of our wills in obedience, we need to be filled by the richness of Tradition.

The ninth step of humility is that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question, (7,56)

The tongue, St. James tells us, is a restless evil, who can tame it? The discipline of silence is, in some ways, the most difficult one, and perhaps not one that is most fully realized until one has become more proficient in the life of Christ. After all, silence is so readily given to passive agression. This “silence” is not holy, but an anger which seeks to hurt and pain those against whom it is directed. But if one has given up one’s own will and desires, if one has learned obedience, if one is filled by the Tradition, passive agression is more difficult to manage, and so silence can be more real, richer, healing.

Silence reduces the barriers to the truth about ourselves. We are confronted with our frantic restlessness, afraid to stop and look and listen. But humility calls us to silence, to know the truth about ourselves, and there in the silence of our heart to meet the God who loves us and will not abandon us, even when we abandon ourselves.

The tenth step of humility is that he is not given to ready laughter, for it is written: Only a fool raises his voice in laughter (Sir 21:23). (7,59)

Ours is an entertainment world, a world of meaningless and vain talk. In our laughter we seek our own gratification. In our laughter we push away those who sorrow and mourn, those who cannot laugh. If there is to be godly laughter, perhaps it can only take place when one has shut out the glittering vanity of entertainment living and been silent, actively encountering all that Providence brings our way. In refusing laughter we choose to actively embrace the sorrowing and the suffering, we give them hospitality by giving them our silent attention.

Wisdom is known by her children. And her children, says the saint, are not full of vain laughter, but of silence.

The eleventh step of humility is that a monk speaks gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice, as it is written: “A wise man is known by his few words.” (7,60-61)

Having mastered and been mastered by silence, having embraced all of reality, including the sorrow and the suffering, no longer driven by our desires or the demands of our own will, we are at last ready to speak. But it is measured speech, speech that is weighed, since our Lord himself affirmed we will give account for every careless word we utter, the insult, the vain laugh, the endless bloviation. The children of wisdom are known for their few words, which is to say, they’re known for their silence. Wise men speak because there is a need to speak, and not because there is silence. Wise men dwell first in silence, and out of refusing to speak they at last learn how to speak.

And having finally scaled the ladder beginning with the fear of God and working our way through silence, we come at last to the final step: the life of humility.

The twelfth step of humility is that a monk always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else. Whether he sits, walks or stands, his head must be bowed and his eyes cast down. Judging himself always guilty on account of his sins, he should consider that he is already at the fearful judgment, and constantly say in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with downcast eyes: Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven (Luke 18:13). And with the Prophet: I am bowed down and humbled in every way (Ps 37 [38]:7-9; Ps 118 [119]:107). (7,62-66)

There are those who are humble and it pains them so. And then there are those who are humble and go nearly unnoticed. But they leave an immistakable fragrance, an odor of sanctity. We hear their silence when they’re gone, and drink in its sweet harmony when they are present. It is humility which sings its song in all they do, the wisdom of knowing that all we are given, all that we are, is nothing but the mercy of a God who loves us and gave himself for us. They are continually struck dumb by that realization. The God whose glory is greater than anything that can be imagined, humbled himself and became poor so that we who are so much less than we imagine, and who exalt ourselves, might at last become humble, and in our poverty might be made rich by his humble condescension, all of grace, shining with beauty.

Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins. (7,67-70)

And so what began in fear has ended in love. But this is true of all the life in Christ. We progress always from fear to love, from judgment to mercy. And when we are nothing but love, then we have been made to be like him.

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