The eighth degree of humility is that a monk do nothing except what is commended by the common Rule of the monastery and the example of the elders.
Today’s reading doesn’t seem, in my opinion, to have a literal application for the lay oblate. What do I take from this step then? That our spiritual practices be in the spirit of our priory; that I not give myself to flights of fancy, imagining all sorts of exotic practices (I say “I” here, and not “we”, as of the two of us I am the one who has a natural “liturgical curiosity”). No, if we are sons and daughters of our priory, if we are being guided down that path by the monastic family that adopted us, then our prayer life should mirror theirs as much as possible.
I am quite familiar with our priory’s charism and their practices. Does that mean that we should adopt everything? No; humilty demands that we submit to our spiritual father’s guidance – he will tell us what is ok for us to adopt, lest in our initial zeal we overburden ourselves and fall short as soon as we start off. Fasting for penitential seasons, as well as spiritual reading during these, how much of the Office – all this is at his discretion.
We are still trying to work out how to stick with our prayer routines when we have visitors staying for several days, or when we go on holiday. For some reason, we are never able to adapt them, and everything just falls apart for that period.
Adopting monastic practices shouldn’t be a source of vainglory. If anything, they should be a humble reminder that a monastic family has been merciful enough to adopt us. They are not something to flaunt, but not necessarily to hide either. As oblates connected to a priory we cannot escape them. In their proper context they may even be edifying to others who happen to catch a glimpse. These practices should help bring us closer in spirit as well to our extended family, so that we may pray with one heart.
The seventh degree of humility is that he consider himself lower and of less account
than anyone else, and this not only in verbal protestation but also with the most heartfelt inner conviction, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet, “But I am a worm and no man, the scorn of men and the outcast of the people” (Ps. 21:7). “After being exalted, I have been humbled and covered with confusion” (Pa. 87:16).
And again, “It is good for me that You have humbled me, that I may learn Your commandments” (Ps. 118:71,73).
It might seem strange to refer to one’s self in the terms St. Benedict uses, to belittle and despise one’s self, especially in an age of affirmation and self-assertion (there is, however, a place for some form of affirmation and self-assertion for one’s mental health). I think the key to properly understanding this step is keeping in mind the previous one. In the previous step we were already to compare ourselves to a worthless workman. In Luke’s Gospel the worthless workman is he who has done his obligation for the Kingdon of God; that doing what the Lord has commanded out of a sense of obligation, to only fulfill the law, while good in itself, is not the perfect charity that is expected of the Christian.
How can I speak of myself in those terms? It’s not that hard when sometimes I think about how I or others around me speak of other people. We heap scorn, we mock, we belittle, we think them less than worthless. Even if the belittling is not done out of spite, and only “for a laugh” (especially in their abscence), what does it say about how I view my neighbor? Certain environments lend themselves more easily to these kinds of attitudes. Do I do my best to avoid them? Or, when that is not possible, do I keep watch over my mouth and thoughts?
It’s not enough for St. Benedict that we say that we are little, but that we feel it in our innermost recesses. How can I stand in judgement of others when I have receieved and squandered so many graces? If I have made my way to a monastic family, it is because the grace of God has guided me; yet even still I do not turn completely from sin. I know that I have been given these riches. I cannot say the same about my neighbor. I cannot know the war that rages in his soul, or if his soul still lies dead within. I do not know the circumstances that have brought him to where he is at this moment. All I can be sure of is that I have received a talent, dug a hole in the ground and burried it therein. I have received the Kingdom for an inheritence and yet prefer to squander it for a bowl of lentils. How can I not be the most worthless of men?
The sixth degree of humility is that a monk be content with the poorest and worst of everything, and that in every occupation assigned him he consider himself a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet, “I am brought to nothing and I am without understanding; I have become as a beast of burden before You, and I am always with You” (Ps:22-23).
What does it mean for a lay oblate, husband and father, to “be content with the poorest and worst of everything”? Am I to subject my family to misery, to poverty? What I believe our Holy Father is getting at here is that one should be content with the portion one is alotted in life. If my current circumstances aren’t what I dreamed about, and vain thoughts needle me all the while into an interior state of turmoil, of dissatisfaction (“after all, I deserve better“), what does that result in? A foul mood will pervade everything I do; work will be done resentfully; I will become blind to whatever blessings I might have; I will begin to murmur and this will spread to those around me, especially to my family, leading them to sin as well. What about Providence? Not accepting these things that are out of my control, I rebel against the Lord’s will for me at this particular moment.
How does one deal then with these “adversities”? Perhaps by looking at our lives through supernatural eyes. Are we living in a difficult financial situation? Perhaps it is an opportunity for us to learn detachment from all those material things which seemed to be “needs”, but which in fact are only “wants”. Learning to live with less, to live with the old and used and not necessarily new, learning to give thanks for being fortunate to have even that, and to let go even of what is had. Learning to depend on others; to be humble enough to ask for help; and in turn to recognize the needs of others. Learning to abandon one’s self to the Lord, trusting that He shall provide. It is not an easy lesson, and one tends to fall into worry every time a new problem emerges, but it seems that bit by bit a certain feeling of security is being built up, a feeling that one is building upon rock.In all these years of difficulty, when it seemed that the chord was so stretched that it was about to break, He provided at the last minute, many times in the ways we could hae never imagined.
Does that mean, however, that I can’t strive for a better life for my family? I don’t believe so; rather, I can, just as long as I do not lose sight of why I am doing it. If I am striving to “move up”, that it may be to give my family some better conditions that it may grow; not because we want to “keep up with the Joneses”, or because we want this or that creature comfort.
The fifth degree of humility is that he hide from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts that enter his heart or the sins committed in secret, but that he humbly confess them. The Scripture urges us to this when it says, “Reveal your way to the Lord and hope in Him” (Ps. 36:5) and again, “Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever” (Ps. 105:1). And the Prophet likewise says, “My offense I have made known to You, and my iniquities I have not covered up. I said: ‘I will declare against myself my iniquities to the Lord;’ and ‘You forgave the wickedness of my heart'” (Ps. 31:5).
This step is not one of the easiest for me.
We all have that special friend in whom we can confide, tell them our darkest sins. Sometimes we even keep several; each one for a specific kind of sin. Why do we tell them? Is it to unburden ourselves of the sin? Or do we sometimes take a secret delight in telling the other about them, relishing the thought of what we did as we present it to the other with feigned regret? We reveal these bits and pieces to others – others who cannot give us any guidance – but we keep them from our spiritual father. “No, I can’t tell him that; that’s too shocking. What will he think of me?” To our father, to him who would guide us on the path to heal our infirmities, suddenly we are ashamed. It is easy to confess your sins when the priest is not your spiritual father, or he is just a random priest that happened to be there when you needed recourse to him: you do not have to go into detail; you do not have to expose yourself, to show him how deep the rot reaches. He will absolve you, give you some penance (and sometimes some advice given the fleeting details you mentioned) and that is it. Why is it that difficult to disclose ourselves fully to our spiritual father? Is it self-love that keeps us from it? Do we forget that he is a man as well, and that he might well have heard all this before from someone else (after all, we are dully unoriginal in our sins).
It is good to speak with our spiritual father, to confess to him (not necessarily in the sacramental sense) that which goes on in the recesses of our soul. Just that fact that one airs whatever is rotting there will many times help to clear the miasma (sin carries the stench of death), and a particular temptation might go away. Our father, qua spiritual physician, knowing the symptoms will be able to apply the proper balm.
Today’s feast of the Presentation goes well with this step of humility. On this day we commemorate the fact that Jesus was redeemed in the Temple on the 40th day after His birth, as the Law required of the firstborn. It is from St. Luke’s Gospel account that we get the Canticle of Simeon – the Nunc dimittis – where Simeon calls the Babe “lumen ad revelationem“. On this day of Candlemas the Church prays that Christ’s light illumine our soul. Which areas of my innermost being are in need of the lumen Christi? Which ones need to be brought to light, especially with my spiritual father, so that I my may not love the darkness?
The third degree of humility is that a person for love of God submit himself to his Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says, “He became obedient even unto death.”
Today’s Epistle reading (for the Mass of Sexagesima) seems to me to resonate with the passage from the Holy Rule. Here we have St. Paul again as a model of humility, “obedient even unto death.” In today’s pericope from 2 Corinthians St. Paul tells us of all that he suffered at the hands of his secular superiors. Could he not have avoided the floggings, the imprisonments, and other things that befell him? Even if he couldn’t have avoided them, couldn’t he have resented them, given into murmuring at the injustices foisted upon him? After all, wasn’t he doing the Lord’s will? Yet we see here implicitly (and in other epistles, explicity) that he believed in obeying authority because all authority comes from the Lord. Yet not only for this reason. What moved him, surely, was the desire to imitate the Son of Man: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This obedience lead him to death.
St. Paul took on the sweet and light yoke of Christ. Is his fate what we imagine when we think about taking on the yoke? If it isn’t, then surely his example (as well as that of countless martyrs) should wake us from our complacency. While perhaps such a gorey fate is not in store for us, martyrdom always is. Perhaps my martyrdom, as a father and husband living in the world, is one of daily, silent witness. Is it not in those small, daily mortifications – those small “deaths” – that I give witness to Our Lord? Am I obedient to my legitimate superiors: to my manager, to my government, to my ecclesiastic authority? Or do I only obey when it is convenient or when their commands coincide with my understanding/fancy (obviously immoral commands aren’t to be obeyed)?
We must be on our guard, therefore, against evil desires, for death lies close by the gate of pleasure. Hence the Scripture gives this command: “Go not after your concupiscences” (Eccles. 18:30).
So therefore, since the eyes of the Lord observe the good and the evil (Prov. 15:3) and the Lord is always looking down from heaven on the children of earth “to see if there be anyone who understands and seeks God” (Ps. 13:2), and since our deeds are daily, day and night, reported to the Lord by the Angels assigned to us, we must constantly beware, brethren, as the Prophet says in the Psalm, lest at any time God see us falling into evil ways and becoming unprofitable (Ps. 13:3); and lest, having spared us for the present because in His kindness He awaits our reformation, He say to us in the future, “These things you did, and I held My peace” (Ps. 49:21).
Today’s reading reminded me of how much I neglect my guardian angel. There are times when I’ve paid him more attention than I do now (though never offering him much more than a few prayers during the day); other times when I’ve been miraculously taken out of harms way and become acutely aware that it was due to his intercession; when I’ve sinned, falling into one of my vices, I become aware of him as well.
I pray to the saints, I try to cultivate my relationship with them, but for some reason I neglect my guardian angel. Why is that? Is that because one so rarely hears speak of angels nowadays? Is it because I can relate to the saints? How can I cultivate my relationship with my guardian angel, and how can I foster it in my children?
As for self-will, we are forbidden to do our own will by the Scripture, which says to us, “Turn away from your own will” (Eccles. 18:30), and likewise by the prayer in which we ask God that His will be done in us. And rightly are we taught not to do our own will when we take heed to the warning of Scripture: “There are ways which seem right, but the ends of them plunge into the depths of hell” (Prov. 16:25); and also when we tremble at what is said of the careless: “They are corrupt and have become abominable in their will.”
And as for the desires of the flesh, let us believe with the Prophet that God is ever present to us, when he says to the Lord, “Every desire of mine is before You” (Ps. 37:10).
We continue with the chapter on Humility. What has caught my attention today is the following verse: And rightly are we taught not to do our own will when we take heed to the warning of Scripture: “There are ways which seem right, but the ends of them plunge into the depths of hell“ (Prov. 16:25)
“I had to this because…”; “I didn’t have a choice…”; “It’s insignificant”; … How many times do we try to rationalize our sins; how many times do we tell ourselves that the ends justify the means? We fall into presumption: “God is love; He’ll forgive this little oversight; after all, it was well intentioned!” Later on we commit the sin again, rationalize it once again, and so on and so forth, until one day we forget that it ever was a sin, and we find ourselves not on the straight and narrow way, but in the ways of the world which, St. Benedict reminds us time and again, are antithetical to the Gospel, to the way of the Cross.
The current situation of the Western world, of our post-Christian society, seems to be also a good example of this warning against following the self-will. Sins that cry out to Heaven are enshrined in law. My will be done. We have turned our backs on the Light, on the Oriens ex alto which has come to free us from every bondage, to follow our own lights. The Lord is no longer a lamp unto our feet; our eyes are darkened, our body is not full of light. And so, the blind lead the blind.
It is easy to blame “society” for the present situation – to place blame on others – but isn’t the current state of things an indictment of our failure (as a Church and as individual members of it) to proclaim the Gospel, to lead holy lives? How many times have I not in my own darkness guided others down that same path? Which parts of my life are in immediate need of light, to dispel the darkness of self-will?
The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded; let his thoughts constantly recur to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God, and to the life everlasting which is prepared for those who fear Him. Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh.
Today’s reading tells us of the first rung of the ladder of humility – the fear of God. We know that Deus caritas est – “God is Love” (perhaps even abusing the meaning of that statement), but what does it mean to fear Him? After all, doesn’t St. John tell us as well that “Fear is not in charity: but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain.” Why then does St. Benedict tell us to keep the fear of the Lord before our eyes? Is it a product of his medieval mind? A superstition that creeped into his beliefs? Quite the contrary! Our holy father is steeped in the Fathers and the Scriptures. All throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament we find references to the fear of the Lord – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom […] (Pr 9:10).
There are, I would say, two kinds of fear: one positive, one negative; one active, the other passive. The negative kind of fear is one that debilitates, that paralyzes, that makes one incabable of acting; it is the fear of a slave, a fear of punishment. The positive makes one want to strive, to grow; it is the fear of the child who loves his parents so much that he is afraid of displeasing them – this latter is the timor Domini we should strive for. It is true, however, that people have different levels of spiritual maturity and that many times the starting point is the negative kind of fear. This is not bad insofar as one does not stay stuck in it, does not move beyond it to a more perfect love. I speak for myself when I say that at different periods in my life I have gone between one and the other (sometimes within the same day!), that it has not been a sort of linear progression.
St. Benedict tells us to ponder our sins regularly. I believe this is a form of keeping before one’s eyes one’s own worthlessness. This is not a very popular attitude in our current culture, in which we’re told to only focus on the positive, that we need to “embrace who we are”, to “follow our hearts” – the “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” culture. If I am “OK”, if there is nothing wrong with me, what need do I have of being saved? After all, what do I need to be saved from? The character that Scrpitures contrast the God-fearer to is the fool: A fool receiveth not the words of prudence: unless thou say those things which are in his heart. (Pr. 18:2)
Lately, for whatever reasons I do not know, it has been hard to keep this state of mind at work. This disipation has lead to me catch myself over and over again unconsciously falling into sins of the mind and of the tongue. As Lent approaches, perhaps this is something to keep in mind.
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.