Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). In saying this it shows us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard when he says, “Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes lifted up; neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130:1) But how has he acted? “Rather have I been of humble mind than exalting myself; as a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130:2).
Hence, brethren, if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life, we must by our ascending actions erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream, on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending. By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world, which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled. For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder, and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.
Today we reach the Holy Rule’s chapter on the virtue of Humility. The openning lines of this chapter remind me of the feast day celebrated today: the Conversion of St. Paul. Here is one who “exalted himself” and yet was brought low. Saul, so sure of himself, so sure that he was following the Lord’s will (perhaps to the point of hardening his heart). This sureness, even though based on his love for God, lead him to consider himself justified in chosing who was worthy of living. And in one moment the Lord changed everything. A man so full of certainties, who could “see” God’s plan, suddenly became blind. His whole world was changed up-side down.
I believe that from his conversion onward St. Paul’s path was one of humility, of learning to be humble. After being blinded he need someone to guide him. He had to subject himself to being baptized by someone who was mistrustful of him. After his baptism he retired to Arabia for several years, perhaps to meditate on his life, to try to make sense of it all in light of his “new” faith in Christ. From his letters and from the book of Acts we read of St. Paul’s sufferings and humiliations, all for the love of Christ. (I often wonder if after his conversion St. Stephen’s face did not haunt his dreams, a reminder of the man he had once been, responsible for the death of his brother-in-Christ.) Looking at St. Paul, reading him, we can learn about humility. His acceptance of all that befell upon him is, to me, a sign of his humility. His certainties were shaken by the Lord, brought to naught, so that his hardened heart would break. It would be from the rubble of this broken heart that the Lord would raise up a saint who would bring the Gentiles into Christ, carrying on Israel’s forgotten mission to the world.
Humility is a foundational stone in following a conversion of life/manners – conversatio morum – that vow so particular to Benedictines, and yet so universal to all Christians. If you are not humble enough to recognize that your life needs to change, how can you change it at all? But what does it mean to be humble? Does it mean one wallows in self-pity? Or does it mean one is a doormat, letting others walk all over? Looking at St. Paul, we find a man of a firey temperament, yet nonetheless humble. Being humble means being aware of your own worthlessness, of your own limitations, remembering the earth (humus) from which one has been fashioned and to which one shall return. But instead of dwelling on this worthlessness in a morbid fashion, the humble man intrusts all to the Lord, recognizing that only in following Him will he be able to do any good.