Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Ladder of Humility, Introduction

Each morning in the monastery, we read a brief portion of the Rule of St. Benedict, and because the Rule itself is merely 'a little rule for beginners', we read through it this way three times each year. We are about to complete the longest chapter, the seventh on humility. As it happens, I have recently received a few questions about this chapter, which tends to trouble many people today. Given its centrality in Benedictine spirituality, it seems that some words of assistance would be worthwhile.

First, let us note that humility is no tougher for us today than it has ever been. Aristotle famously did not consider it a virtue. Modern thinkers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche who urged healthy self-love were in a sense returning to a more 'sensible' paganism. Humility only makes sense if we believe in a loving, forgiving and All-powerful God. Jesus Christ, meek and humble of heart, triumphed through humility because He entrusted His life to God the Father. It is therefore faith that makes humility feasible.

Secondly, the ladder of humility is primarily descriptive and not prescriptive. This is to say that it is not a textbook for how to become humble. Rather, we can evaluate our progress (or lack thereof) by measuring ourselves against the ladder. This is also to say that we cannot conclude that a monk who never laughs is therefore humble. Rather, the humble monk will be less likely to bust out chuckling at every provocation.

This is not to say attempts at imitating the steps will not aid us in progressing. Certainly being aware of God's presence (step 1) is something that takes effort. Meditation on others' virtues and our faults is suggested in various ways by later saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, and this can lead us to the conviction that we are of less account than others (step 7). More normally, however, we will progress in humility the old-fashioned way, by gracefully accepting the humiliations that come with everyday life (St. Benedict mentions humiliations in connection with aspirants to the life: they ought to have 'zeal for humiliations'!). This can get easier with age: as our bodies stop cooperating and our hair falls out. As we grow in experience and gradually come to grips with the vagaries of life, our youthful certainties tend to be replaced with a quiet reticence to judge and take sides. These are at least opportunities to grow in humility; it is all too easy to resist them. The ladder of humility helps keep us honest.

Finally, honesty is simply the adjunct of humility. Humility is the product of seeing ourselves as we really are. We are at once incorrigible sinners and forgiven by a loving God. We are at once the crown of creation and God's adversaries. We possess amazingly powerful minds and frail bodies. This unstinting drive for truth is again possible because we believe that it is the Truth Who sets us free. Our fearful or proud efforts to avoid the truth ultimately lessen us, ironically, since it would appear that humility does this. This is perhaps why the ladder of humility is an ascent.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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