Recently at dinner, a Sister somewhat kiddingly asked me if I had gotten a “big head yet.” I was mystified by the question and responded “about what?” She then cited an accomplishment from several weeks earlier. I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but inwardly I was thinking – “That was weeks ago. There’s been a hundred leveling events since then.”
St. Benedict describes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service,” but it wouldn’t be out of line to also call it a “school of humility.” Not only does Benedict emphasize humility in his monastic rule, the life itself moderates inclinations toward pride.
It’s important, though, to know what humility means to a Benedictine. It doesn’t mean low self-esteem or any of the negative connotations our culture attaches to the term. Rather, for a Benedictine, humility is a virtue to be cultivated. An entire dissertation could be written on St. Benedict’s view of humility, but in encapsulated form it can be described as a right view of one’s self before God and before others. We are created in God’s image, yet we are formed of dust and clay. We are both gifted and frail. We are prone to missteps and stumbling, and heroic acts of charity.
Within monastic community, where we constantly rub shoulders in shared work, prayer, and leisure, this dual reality is never far from view. We see both the giftedness and the frailty in ourselves and in each other.
The Benedictine vow of stability commits us to seeking God within this particular community for a lifetime. It is a lifetime of successes and failures – of falling down and getting up – seen up close and personal, day in and day out, by one’s Sisters. Over time, as we experience the loving presence of Community – rejoicing in our gifts when we succeed, helping us up when we fall, and always challenging us to grow – we gradually become more and more our true selves, able to acknowledge both our giftedness and our frailty with humility and equanimity.
The word ‘humility’ is related to the Latin ‘humus,’ which means earth, or soil. To be humble is to know from whence we came, and to know our destiny, in light of the Gospel message. Humility is also a willingness to break open like a seed, be cultivated, and grow toward the Light. And in monastic community, we grow together toward God in this “school of the Lord’s service.”
Postscript: A great resource for exploring a Benedictine perspective on humility is A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility. Author Michael Casey is a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia.