Humility—not an attractive trait in today’s culture but one that is of utmost importance on the spiritual journey. St. Benedict, in Chapter 7 of his Rule, offers an extensive “Twelve-Step Program” for the cultivation of humility. It is the longest and most spiritually demanding chapter in the Rule.
Today’s secular culture values self-assertion, independence, dominance, and celebrity. However, for those who undertake the path leading to spiritual growth and progress toward the Kingdom of God, these worldly, ego-centered values are an impediment. According to St. Benedict and other spiritual masters, humility is non-negotiable, for humility leads us to truth and to recognition of our radical need for God.
St. Benedict describes the twelve steps of humility as a ladder we climb to attain perfection. The difficulty with this analogy is that it makes it appear as if one step is completed once and for all before moving on to the next. Fr. Michael Casey, OSCO, in Introducing Benedict’s Rule, compares St. Benedict’s twelve steps to a modern-day escalator rather than a ladder since all the steps of an escalator are moving at the same time. One must continually work at all of the “steps” virtually all of the time. T. S. Eliot in his poem Four Quartets comments that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire…is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Our growth in humility is never finished in this lifetime.
Additionally, St. Benedict sees community life as possible only when all of the members are striving for humility because proud people cannot live in peace together. The monastic community is a “school of the Lord’s service” in which everyone is learning the tools of the spiritual craft—humility being the most paramount.
The very first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is Asculta, which is a summons to listen. Humility calls on us to listen for the will of God in all that we do. If we are truly listening to the Word of God and for God’s will to be revealed, then we always will be called to put the needs and welfare of others ahead of our own. Real listening, real humility, will allow us to be aware of the needs of others around us as well as the needs of all the world.
In her new inclusive translation and commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, Sr. Judith Sutera, OSB quotes C.S. Lewis’ definition of humility, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” The movement away from self-centeredness and toward God-centeredness is the true goal of all monastics and all who seek to truly find God.
In closing I would like to share a quote from a series of articles written by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB on Humility.
“Certainly, another word for humility is authenticity, the grace of being who we say we are.
The way we carry ourselves and talk and look and speak and walk with those around us is the only real proof of our humility. Where insult and expectation, disdain and dismissal of others, arrogance and authoritarianism are evident, they exude indifference to the needs and values, intelligence, and insight of others. Then the size of our own soul shrinks under the light of day.
We have never needed more the humility that brings the world together as pride threatens to wrench us apart. In the end, Benedict is right: Stifling arrogance, embarrassing self-aggrandizement, and the insufferable pomposity that pathological pride spawns expose all the empty spots in the soul. And they are gaping. Or as St. Vincent de Paul put it centuries ago, ‘Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.’”
By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB