Chapter 7: Humility

1 Brothers, Divine Scripture calls to us saying: Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted (Luke 14:11; 18:14). 2 In saying this, therefore, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride, 3 which the Prophet indicates he has shunned, saying: Lord, my heart is not exalted; my eyes are not lifted up and I have not walked in the ways of the great nor gone after marvels beyond me (Ps 130[131]:1). 4 And why? If I had not a humble spirit, but were exalted instead, then you would treat me like a weaned child on its mother’s lap (Ps 130[131]:2).

5 Accordingly, brothers, if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, 6 then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending (Gen 28: 12). 7 Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. 8 Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. 9 We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.

10 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. 11 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. 12 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, 13 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.

14 The Prophet indicates this to us when he shows that our thoughts are always present to God, saying: God searches hearts and minds (Ps 7:10); 15 again he says: The Lord knows the thoughts of men (Ps 93[94]:11); 16 likewise, From afar you know my thoughts (Ps 138[139]:3); 17 and, The thought of man shall give you praise (Ps 75[76]:11). 18 That he may take care to avoid sinful thoughts, the virtuous brother must always say to himself: I shall be blameless in his sight if I guard myself from my own wickedness (Ps 17[18]:24).

19 Truly, we are forbidden to do our own will, for Scripture tells us: Turn away from your desires (Sir 18:30). 20 And in the Prayer too we ask God that his will be done done in us (Matt 6:10). 21 We are rightly taught not to do our own will, since we dread what Scripture says: There are ways which men call right that in the end plunge into the depths of hell (Prov 16:25). 22 Moreover, we fear what is said of those who ignore this: They are corrupt and have become depraved in their desires (Ps 13[14]:1).

23 As for the desires of the body, we must believe that God is always with us, for All my desires are known to you (Ps 37[38]:10), as the Prophet tells the Lord. 24 We must then be on guard against any base desire, because death is stationed near the gateway of pleasure. 25 For this reason Scripture warns us, Pursue not your lusts (Sir 18:30).

26 Accordingly, if the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked (Prov 15:3), 27 if at all times the Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see whether any understand and seek God (Ps 13[14]:2); 28 and if every day the angels assigned to us report our deeds to the Lord day and night, 29 then, brothers, we must be vigilant every hour or, as the Prophet says in the psalm, God may observe us falling at some time into evil and so made worthless (Ps 13[14]:3). 30 After sparing us for a while because he is a loving father who waits for us to improve, he may tell us later, This you did, and I said nothing (Ps 49[50]:21).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Here we are at the end of the first week of Lent. Thanks be to God!! We need to take a few moments to look again at what we want to do during this time of Lent. We need to remind ourselves that we began Lent with strong hopes and desires. Sometimes these hopes and desires die during the time of Lent as we forget what it was that we wanted to do. I encourage you to spend a couple of moments right now, thinking of what you wrote about Lent and what was put on the altar.

Part of Lent must be spent in looking at our relationship with our community. I do not mean our relationships with one another, but with the community. And because Lent is such a strong time, I would like us to look at our relationship to the community in the light of the first degree of humility: that the monk always keep the fear of God before his eyes.

We all have a very personal relationship with one another. We must have profound respect and love for one another, personally. But I would like us to look at the relationship with the community. In the Acts of the Apostles we find a bit of what I am talking about, when that couple, Ananias and Saphira, sell their property and give only part of the proceeds to the community when they had promised to give it all. This action was not a personal offense against another person, but an offense against the community.

And we can easily fall into the mistake of thinking that only personal offenses are really offenses. We need to be aware of our personal offenses, our personal feelings and attitudes to one another, but we also need to become more aware and sensitive to our relationship to the community as community.

What types of actions am I talking about? What ways of living do I refer to? For instance, when one of us gets up in the middle of choir and walks out, this affects the whole community–but is not a personal relationship to any one of us in the community. Or when any one of us slams a door in the quiet times, this affects everyone who hears it, but is not meant personally. Lots of these types of actions are habits that we allow to come into our lives, without reflecting on how these habits affect others. And if a brother takes such actions personally, he will over-react to such actions.

Lent is a time when all of us need to look at our habits that affect others, to look at how our personal habits have effects beyond what we may intend. For instance, one of our brothers slept in this morning and was not at Vigils. I can say this openly because he came to me and asked pardon. That is the right thing to do when such things happen. And such things do happen. But part of my conversation with him included the admonition not to let this become a habit. Because if sleeping in becomes a habit, then it tells the rest of us that Vigils are not really worth getting up for each day. We have to look at what our habits tell others about our values and about what we value in our monastic life. And yet we can never judge our brother. All of us will sleep in from time to time–that is part of the human condition. But if a brother sleeps in and begins to make a habit of sleeping in and does not come to the superior to ask pardon–then there is a real problem.

Or if one of us begins to come late for the Office. We all come late once in a while. And we cannot judge when another person comes late that he does not have a good reason. On the other hand, each of us can look in his own heart and ask what coming late says to others. It says to others that I think the Office is not important.

And we can continue in looking at any other habit that we have that may be against the common life: speaking when I should be silent, being lazy in my work, not being present at things when I should be, etc., etc., etc. The point is not to look at one another’s motives. The challenge is for me to look at my life and ask what I do to the community when I act in such a way. It is so easy to simply ignore that my actions have an effect on the community because I am not hurting anyone personally. Instead, we are all called in Lent to be more sensitive to this dimension of community living. Not to create anything for ourselves, but so that we may all serve the Lord better. May we keep the fear of God before our eyes in all that we do, so that we may love one another more in Christ and may serve Christ in joy in our community.

Chapter 7, Verses 31-33

31 The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; 32 rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38). 33 Similarly we read, “Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown.”

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

The steps of humility go against so much that we value. Naturally, I love my own will and I take pleasure in the satisfaction of my desires. Thus, this road of humility that Saint Benedict maps out for us is clearly, from the beginning, a road that is not easy to travel. I am invited to become single-minded in seeking God’s will and doing God’s will. There have been many ways of saying this in the long Christian and monastic tradition.

We speak about “conforming my will to God’s will.” That is because we recognize that I cannot kill my own will. I must always remain responsible for my actions. Thus whenever I discover that God’s will is not my will, I seek to change my will and accept His will.

This is intimately tied up with not taking pleasure in the satisfaction of my own desires. It is a discipline for me to deny my own desires. I do this, not in some sadistic or masochistic way, but simply in the ordinary things of life. The purpose of such an activity is to free me, so that I can recognize that there are lots of things that I do that bind me. The whole challenge of the spiritual life is to become free IN ORDER TO DO GOD’S WILL.

Today, at the end of the 2nd millenium, we are so caught up trying to discover who we are and trying to be faithful to our inner spirit that it is difficult to recognize the call of the Gospel which indicates that we shall discover ourselves by denying ourselves for the sake of doing God’s will. For many, this makes no sense. For those who have discovered its inner dynamic, it seems almost self-evident. For the one following the monastic way, it is the only road.

Chapter 7, Verse 34

34 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 became obedient even to death (Phil 2:8).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

This degree of humility is always read to us on Good Friday, no matter what section of the Rule falls on that day. There have been many attempts to re-interpret this degree of humility, but it is really difficult to put any other interpretation on this: submit to the superior. There are some communities today where even the word “superior” is banished from the vocabulary. For Benedict, a superior is simply someone over us–not someone better than us, not someone who knows more than we do and for sure not necessary anyone more holy than we. The “superior” is simply another human being who is set over us. And we submit to the superior in obedience. Why? Because we want to die! This is no morbid desire, but simply the desire to die to ourselves so that we may live fully in Christ. Surely one of the quickest way to deep inner freedom is the mature choice to submit ourselves to another human being in obedience in all things except that which is sinful. Such obedience almost immediately opens a spiritual vista before us, showing that so much of what we hold important, even necessary, simply impedes spiritual growth. This is a tried and true road to living in Christ. It is a road that is often rejected today but which is a wonderful way to the Lord.

Chapter 7, Verses 35-43

35 The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavourable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering 36 and endures it without weakening or seeking escape. For Scripture has it: Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22), 37 and again, Be brave of heart and rely on the Lord (Ps 26[27]:14). 38 Another passage shows how the faithful must endure everything, even contradiction, for the Lord’s sake, saying in the person of those who suffer, For your sake we are put to death continually; we are regarded as sheep marked for slaughter (Rom 8:36; Ps 43[44]:22). 39 They are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say, But in all this we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us (Rom 8:37). 40 Elsewhere Scripture says: God, you have tested us, you have tried us as silver is tried by fire; you have led us into a snare, you have placed afflictions on our backs (Ps 65[66]:10-11). 41 Then, to show that we ought to be under a superior, it adds: You have placed men over our heads (Ps 65[66]:12).

42 In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two (Matt 5:39-41). 43 With the Apostle Paul, they bear with false brothers, endure persecution, and bless those who curse them (2 Cor 11:26; 1 Cor 4:12).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

This step of humility gives some details or developments of the steps two and three. Today we are taught to resist injustice. We must stand up for our rights. We must protest. How far different is this attitude of the Holy Rule. There is surely no problem is stating that injustice is injustice. Benedict is not asking us to embrace immorality of any type. Yet we are invited to endure injustice with a quiet heart and embrace the suffering that it brings–for the sake of serving the Lord.

Again, we must say immediately that there are many who reject this teaching or who want to spiritualize it so that there is no sting to it. But in the sting comes the spiritual growth. In verse 41 Benedict is clearly stating that the one who follows the monastic way will suffer from the “superior.” Clearly Benedict expects this and believes that spiritual growth will come through it.

Today there is huge emphasis on community, on leadership, on consensus and all the nice qualities that work so well in a perfect community. Benedict seems not to expect that kind of community at all. Consensus for Benedict lies in following the decision of the superior, even when the superior is stubborn, contradictory and stupid. It is interesting to see the contrast between the form of community so often advocated today and that of the Holy Rule. There is no doubt that Benedict wants the superior of the community to listen to the members; Benedict wants the superior to strive to make good decisions. The real challenge is when the superior does not do that or does it in a way that goes against me.

Am I willing to accept this challenge? Can I embrace this monastic road that leads to Christ? Will I let myself be put down so that Christ may triumph in me?

Chapter 7, Verses 44-47

44 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 rather confesses them humbly. 45 Concerning this, Scripture exhorts us: Make known your way to the Lord and hope in him (Ps 36[37]:5). 46 And again: Confess to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy is forever (Ps 105[106]:1; Ps 117[118]:1). 47 So too the Prophet: To you I have acknowledged my offence; my faults I have not concealed. 48 I have said: Against myself I will report my faults to the Lord, and you have forgiven the wickedness of my heart (Ps 31 [32]:5).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Now, to add insult to injury, Benedict asks the monk to reveal any sinful thoughts that enter his heart to the abbot! We can ask ourselves: Isn’t it bad enough to have to admit the mistakes that I make that are all too obvious to everyone? Do I really have to reveal even the thoughts that come to me which I work to hard to conceal?

We come up against this question again: Do I want to follow this monastic path? Nobody is forcing me to do so. It is an invitation of the Lord. There are many today who follow the monastic way but who will not follow this path! We can certainly find lots of literature tell us that this is not the way to go.

I do not think that this is one of those things that monastic tradition has proven to be unworkable, such as the Abbot always eating with the guests. Rather, this is one of those things in the spiritual tradition that really demands a deep humility and most of us are simply scared to try this path. This path is not demanded of me, but the invitation is clearly there if I take the steps of humility seriously.

Chapter 7, Verses 49-50

49 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, 50 saying to himself with the Prophet: I am insignificant and ignorant, no better than a beast before you, yet I am with you always (Ps 72[73]:22-23).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

If we have accepted the first steps of humility, this one is a cinch! If we have worked hard to do steps two, three, four and five, this sixth step will hardly delay us at all. We find this manner of living even among non-Christians who are seeking a spiritual path. What I do is not really important. How I do it makes all the difference in the world. Surely we have all felt the sting of being thought less capable that we think we are. Can we embrace that evaluation with peace and even with joy. It is not a matter of fooling others. We are not invited to think: “Oh, yes, I am undervalued and I shall offer it to Christ!” No, it is a matter of deeply believing that others evaluation of me are really not important and that I can do whatever I am asked to do–with great joy and gladness. This is not low self-esteem, but rather a simple recognition of who I am before the Lord. My value comes from the Lord. My life comes from the Lord. I give it back to the Lord without any fanfare.

Chapter 7, Verses 51-54

51 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, 52 humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: I am truly a worm, not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people (Ps 21[22]:7). 53 I was exalted, then I was humbled and overwhelmed with confusion (Ps 87[88]:16). 54 And again: It is a blessing that you have humbled me so that I can learn your commandments (Ps 118[119]:71,73).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Living this step of humility is impossible if we are looking at anything other than God. If we look at God and all else only in God, then we see only God in everything and yet still know our own weaknesses and failures. The weaknesses and failures of others no longer concern us or distract us–for we were never able to judge them anyway. Our own weaknesses and failures–there we do know the motivations and the lack of choosing God. We can truly say that we are inferior and of less value than all else. The purpose of this humility is to learn God’s ways, God’s commandments.

Chapter 7 Verse 55

55 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.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

This step of humility goes against my desire to be different from others. So often I want to do that which is different simply to assert my own identity. What this step of humility is telling me is that I must find my identity from within, from within Christ, not from what I do. One Abbot said: “Follow the good example of the seniors, not their bad example.” What a delight it is in a Monastery when we encounter young monks who simply want to do what is right and what is best and understand the meaning of this degree of humility intuitively.

56 The ninth step of humility is that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question, 57 for Scripture warns, In a flood of words you will not avoid sinning (Prov 10:19), 58 and, a talkative man goes about aimlessly on earth (Ps 139[140]:12).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

This step of humility trains us in patience, that wonderful virtue that helps us suffer for the sake of growth. For anyone: try to practice for one day not speaking unless someone asks you a question! What a learning experience this is! All of us can benefit from the discipline of this step of humility. How many words we use each day that are not really necessary. How often we use talk to distract ourselves.

Chapter 7, Verse 59

59 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).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

This step is very much like the previous step, but now we struggle against our own laughter. There is a laughter that delights in the Lord and in others. Too often, however, our laughter comes from other realities within us. How often do I laugh from nervousness? Do I laugh at times simply because others are laughing–and sometimes the laughter hurts others or makes light of something that should be taken seriously? How much do I know about my own laughter–its causes and its effects?

Chapter 7, Verses 60 and 61

60 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, 61 as it is written: “A wise man is known by his few words.”

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

If we have worked on the 9th and the 10th steps, this one is the combination of the fruits of the previous two. Silence can teach us to speak gently. Gentleness always helps others hear us. We know–all of us–that if we go to a person and start a conversation with insulting words, generally we will not be heard. Often just the tone of voice opens or closes our capacity of truly hearing the other person. Thus Benedict would have us speak with gentleness. And how many of us know people who take a half hour to say what could have been said in two minutes! What about ourselves? Can we strive to be modest, brief and reasonable in our speech? Does that really ask too much of us?

Chapter 7, Verses 64-66

62 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 63 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. 64 Judging himself always guilty on account of his sins, he should consider that he is already at the fearful judgment, 65 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). 66 And with the Prophet: I am bowed down and humbled in every way (Ps 37[38]:7-9; Ps 118[119]:107).

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Today, when there is so much emphasis on “integration,” this aspect of humility should be understand easily. The interior attitude should be visible in the external deportment. There are people with very poor self-image who always have their heads bowed down and their eyes downcast–but this is obviously not true humility. The person who is humble has a true sense of self-worth. This person knows that God is always present and is centered in that reality, rather than in self. The truly humble person knows when to look up and when to look down, when to bow the head and when to lift the head, when to look and when to cast the gaze down.

Chapter 4, Verses 67-70

67 Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (I John 4:18). 68 Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, 69 no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. 70 All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vice and sins.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

At last we come to a quiet time in life. Surely it does come, even in the spiritual life. The monastic men and women of the desert said to beware of such times, because they can be illusion. Quiet time does not mean that there is no struggle, but life is certainly much easier. There are three things that characterize the monastic person at this level of integration: acting from the love of Christ, from good habit and from delight in virtue. Once in a great while we find this in young people in the monastery, generally we hope to find it in those who have lived the life for a number of years.