HUMILITY the Forgotten Virtue


HUMILITY the Forgotten Virtue

“To become Christ,” this is the great goal of all Christians and particularly that of the monk. It is the singular exaltation of man that he is called from his birth to see his Creator with the eye of his heart. To the question, “who can see God and live?” the monk answers without hesitation, “Only the Son has seen the Father.” What then is the determinative element of abiding in this love? How is the monk to become Christ? The answer is simple in its declaration, though existentially earth-shattering: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves [also] the one begotten by him.” The monk must become submissive to the Father after the manner of Christ. What is the essence of this act? It is one of radical humility on the part of Him who was in form of God yet emptied himself. Chapter seven of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which comprises 10% of the content of the Rule, answers in the same spirit of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, stating that the only way to such exaltation is through the path of humility.

This virtue perhaps needs some extra defense in the contemporary intellectual and social climate if only because western society has become removed from its Christian roots. To compound this difficulty, modern and post-modern philosophy has been an exercise in understanding the subject and what it bears upon any objective experiences. The definition of the intrinsic rights man are meritorious in their own right, but there is a touch of angelistic philosophy in much western “social contract” theories of governance. The objective experience of man in time is removed as only the subjective agreement of two intellects are taken to be normative for forming reality. Beyond this, technical progress and social materialism has added many degrees of falsely perceived control to the mentalities of man. The tower of Babel rises once again in the eyes of contemporary man. All of these focus on the subjective rights of the individual to the detriment of the objective reality of humanity. Michael Casey, the Trappist author and retreat master, justifies the overcoming of such cultural “blinders” as a minimal reason for engaging the seventh chapter of the Rule of Benedict. Of course, from a Christian perspective, it seems quite admirable to be open to the words of the Saint whose Rule set the foundations for Europe and the preservation of Western Civilization by the force of his humble spiritual guidance.

The context of “humility” in the Rule as a whole also draws out its general character for Benedict. In the fifth chapter, he states, “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience,” echoing the style of the twelve steps of humility found later in the seventh chapter. In this first use of the phrase, Benedict forges a bond between his characteristic virtue of obedience to the substance of humility. Furthermore, the fruit of humility is also manifested in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh steps in ways which reflect upon taciturnity, the subject of the sixth chapter of the Rule. In short, what one can deduce is that there is a certain interrelation among these three cardinal monastic virtues. Humility, which begins with an evermindful fear of God, effects an existential change which makes concrete demands upon all the dimensions of the monk-s life. As this requires the entire person, the specifics of how this development of humility are contained within the entire Rule, Scripture, and Tradition.

From the very first sentence of this chapter, Benedict states implictly that humility is not an exercise of self-hatred ordered upon the monks by an aged misanthrope. Instead, he addresses those who are reading this chapter as fraters, “brothers.” The intimacy of this address, which echoes the opening of the prologue and the finale of the seventy-second chapter, already seems to indicate that there is a distinctly loving aim to humility. In the context of the whole Rule, this too is supported, particularly when looking at the sections of the Rule which are either original to Benedict or come from sources other than the Rule of the Master. However, this must not make the reader believe that the seventh chapter is a meek address, for clamat nobis scriptura divina, “Divine Scriptures cries out / shouts to us,” these commands for humility. Nevertheless, this central virtue is directed by a loving father who does not wish to see his spiritual sons humiliated by pride which ultimately leads to damnation.

With these brief preliminaries in place, Benedict presents the rational for the eschewing of all exaltation before moving toward the “program” by which humility is to grow in the monk. To the eyes of a twenty-first century reader the word, “every exaltation is a kind of pride” has a certain opprobrium of pessimism. The penchant of contemporary society for superficiality in analysis strikes a swift blow at the proper interpretation of this text. It would seem at a quick glance that humanity has unquestionable progress in which one could be proud. The success of man’s hands seems to be the singular glory of the human race. Instead, man, by self-exaltation and self-absorption, has brought the world to the precipice of disaster and continuous misery. A deeper reading of this chapter would rem’ind that it is an attitude of Marian receptivity to God who alone gives success to the work of man’s hands. With such humility which admits that “all is grace,” man is able to look upon the rare gem that is this world and dance upon the mould with uninhibited joy. The language of Lucifer’s non serviam, “I will not serve” must be replaced with those of Mary, “My spirit exalts in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on His lowly servant” and those of the Psalmist, “For it was you who knit me together in my mother’s womb…For the wonder of my being I thank you.” Isidore of Seville held that all pride bows down in proportion to the amount that individual is exalted, in something of an action-reaction relationship. Since all such prideful self-reliance directs the monk’s gaze beyond God, it is indeed true that in the final judgment he will be required to bow down for every inch that he rose in denial of God’s majesty, through all of the circles of Dante’s hell. On that last day, he will demand the milk of comfort from his soul’s restless desire which could have been his during life. Now beyond time, the proud man will be like the miserable child which can no longer drink the desired fluid.

Thus, Benedict comes to the paradigm by which he will proceed for the remainder of the chapter. The ultimate source of this text comes from John Cassian’s Institutes, though the imagery of Jacob’s ladder is an addition to the Rule of the Master and Benedict. Cassian’s ten signs of humility were not steps to be taken as a linear program but were indications of progressive growth in humility. However, it would seem that progress from the fear of the Lord (which is antecedent to any quest for humility) to love which has no fear is a progression in its totality. Because of this, de Vogüé reads the Rule of Benedict in a similar light, stating that these steps “are not so much rungs to be climbed one after the other as signs of virtue which can and should appear simultaneously.” In contradiction to this, Michael Casey’s analysis points out the fact that the steps of humility lead from internal to more markedly external manifestations, in a process of continued “externalization which leads to an integration of the whole person.” While there is some interpenetration of these steps, he generally extends the completion of external elements until old age. Perhaps both of these poles must remain for the proper understanding of the progress upon the ladder of humility. In this case, the ambiguity of this slow, organic process remains in tension and life long, never completed. This ambiguity is attested even in Abbot Smaragdus’ commentary where the steps are described as the arms (weapons) of the monk as well as the goal of the battle. In the end, one must resolve this tension by realizing that the steps are fitted into both the soul and the body, that is into the whole person who is mysteriously equated with the ladder itself. The single person is permeated with these steps and will register some continuous fruits of their achievement, though the fullness of each step may indeed only be reached in a discrete manner.

Before proceeding to the ladder’s first step, it is important to consider the other characteristics of this allegorical structure portrayed in verse eight. First and foremost, it is completely apparent that this process of growth in humility is not an act of individual heroism on the part of the monk. The text itself states, humilitato corde a Domino erigatur ad caelum, “with humbled heart, it [the ladder] will be raised up to heaven by the Lord.” This act of elevation is performed by the Lord in his mysterious time, like seeds which are sown but sprout without the sower’s control or knowledge. The RB 1980 translation reads, “If we humble our hearts,” which eliminates the ambiguity of humilitato corde, for the process of humbling the heart is an interaction of grace and active conversion. In either case, this text is proof against any apparent Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, for the elevation of the monk is done by the Lord himself. Furthermore, Benedict eschews the eschatological tone of the Rule of the Master as well as at the end of the chapter, showing that the goal is that love of Christ whose advent is not limited to the hereafter but can break into the time before death.

In order to prepare for such a life-long process of ego-reduction and turning from narcissism, the first step of humility, ever-mindful fear of God, has a certain character of permanence to it. Indeed, this is directly reflected in Cassian’s Institutes, where his “ten signs” of humility presuppose the fear of the Lord. Perhaps Benedict’s inclusion of this on the ladder shows that he expects continuous growth in this respect as part of the monk’s progress upon the ladder. Even if this is granted, the preliminary character of this step is obvious, for such a disposition is necessary for all the other acts on the monastic ladder of humility. Abbot Smaragdus affirmed this in his early commentary, stating that this fear of God is first in dignity and order. It was stated above that the Rule is situated within the tradition of “wisdom literature.” This opening with “fear of God” confirms this assertion given the varied biblical references to “fear of the Lord” as the beginning point in the path of wisdom.

This fear of God is not a pusillanimous trembling before a dominating, vengeful deity but a holy awe before a Creator whose providential love is far more mysterious than can be imagined by the human mind. If the human person is a mystery which must never be debased by objectification and analytical categorization, how much more so with regard to the God who created the universe. The eternal significance of every choice makes demands upon the past, present, and future. This concern remains an intrinsic element of life, for sin marks the fabric of every person and back-sliding is always a possibility. It adds a sobriety to the sight and evolution of one’s life, for the shortcomings of the past become obvious and finitude stark. Even the accomplishments of life are recognized as gifts dependent upon the presupposition of having existence from God.

This fear thus leads the monk to acknowledge his subordinate relationship to his Creator. Many of the details of life are merely givens and out of his control. “You fashioned me in secret,” so says the Psalmist. The conditions of birth, upbringing, family, friends, talents and any other factors which have a deep impact on life are often merely givens over which every person has no control. There are no exceptions to this rule in all humanity. Humility forces the creature to submit to reality as it is given. He is not his own creator, and any delusions of such are pride. Only the gift of unitive submission to God can liberate him from these chains to the past.

With a clear, objective perspective, the monk must then make a sober assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. There is no room for delusion or desire for any certain talents or assignments. Such fantasies usually mask a prideful desire to manipulate others or to gain some form of recognition from the community, Church, or world. Concomitantly, humility requires that all strengths are not only acknowledged but assiduously cultivated (within the context of the monastic life). This humble acceptance of a talent gives its exercise a special vivacity, for a gift is always joyfully used by its recipient. This also demands the cessation of all role-playing in life and calls the monk to embrace the process of allowing the light of God to clear away any false self-perceptions.

The permanent example of this acceptance is first and foremost found in Christ, whose entire life, death, and resurrection are the true manifestation of what it means to be the eternal, loving Word of the Father. However, as a matter of illustration the character of Sam Gamgee from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings serves as a poignant example of such humility in a way that is (in narrative) more directly related to the topic of acceptance of the reality of one’s endowments. Sam’s rearing in the “school of humility” is shown within the first pages of the novel as his simple gardener father recounts telling his son (who is a simple gardener with wider interests than the parochialism of the Shire):

“Elves and Dragons! … Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you.”

The fruits of his father’s wisdom are obvious in the story of his entanglement in the whole adventure to destroy the One Ring. He is only caught eavesdropping upon Gandalf and Frodo’s conversation regarding the Ring because he was upset at the thought of Frodo’s departure. There was no pretense involved, no imagining of becoming a great warrior or his master’s valiant savior on the road. When “punished” by Gandalf with the task of accompanying Frodo on the Quest, he shouted for joy at the thought of seeing Elves. As always, he is the simple, rustic gardener from Bagshot Row. This humble orientation allowed him to avoid even the delusions of grandeur inspired within his mind by the Ring as he and Frodo made the last steps of the quest:

“Already, the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind, and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Ages, striding with flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dúr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

This has been quoted in full because it evokes all of the struggles of anyone attempting to make the humble choice to accept the realities of who they are before God. Man is assaulted by a multitude of temptations, both internal and external, both true and delusional, which influence his mind away from the reality of who he is. It is encouraging to note that this submission on Sam’s part leads him down that final path whereby he becomes an integral instrument in the final steps toward the destruction of the Ring. The abdication of his fantasized grandeur leads to the salvation of Middle Earth. The very fact that he does not wholly affect the final heroic act is merely another confirmation of how humility is submission to the symphony of the events of historical reality. Christ’s words are true; humble submission to God does indeed lead to a hundredfold gifts, even in this life.

The remaining points in this paragraph are variously related to the ongoing nature of the practice of humility. This section in particular contains a barrage of reminders that fear of God is something to be existentially appropriated which suffuses all of the activity of the monk leading to his divination as his will is united to Christ’s. All of this amounts to saying that humility is the central precept of the Christian life and as such is not a part-time undertaking but is an all absorbing combat. Such assiduity in practice must be made manifest in all parts of life, allowing for no compartmentalization in order to provide the monk with a “space that is just his.” Humility rejects autonomy and thereby is dialogical by character; it is therefore being in love.

The opposite of this vigilance is oblivio, “forgetfulness” of the gravity of monastic conversion. It is a forgetfulness of God’s majesty and our relativity to Him. Contemporary society is just as marked as Father Faber’s Victorian England by the problem that “it is not on any theory, or any atheistical [sic] principle, that God is thus passed over. He is unseen, and hence is practically considered as absent.” To use a term from Holzherr which is also picked up by Kardong, the present situation leads to a “practical atheism” in which God is “out of mind because He is out of sight.” Being out of mind, he is out of the daily acts of life. Holzherr quotes Basil the Great on this forgetfulness which gives life a character indistinguishable from atheism:”A person sees that broad masses do not lead better lives than he himself does. He labours under the impression that he should not be different from the others, and cannot perceive that he is on the wrong path…This person is busy, even agitated just as life is. But apart from that: there is no room for the most worthwhile and greatest thing, namely for the awareness of God’s presence. Because this awareness is missing and is driven out of the soul, he lacks that cheerful contentment that comes from God, and joy in the Lord departs from him.”

Man must make a decision either for or against God if only implicitly. Without any firm conviction, man falls prey to the fact that “the single dwelling that is the heart cannot retain both remembrance and forgetfulness at the same time.” Into this vacuum, vice upon vice are “born like poised offspring from poisoned parents”.

Such “practical atheism” is to be overcome by “remembering,” by keeping God always before the monk’s consciousness. Although Benedict does counsel the monk to keep his eyes always upon his finitude and eventual death, he does not continually turn the gaze toward this temporal finitude of man. Instead, he uses the image of God’s omnipresence to reinforce his point and thus infuses the whole of life with the sustaining, creative, and (necessarily) judging power of God. In particular, the language of verses 13-18 are reminiscent of chapter 19 of the Rule, “On the Discipline of Psalmody.” There, the monk is once again reminded to have a fear of the Lord who looks upon His servants whose voices join those of the angels. Beyond the oratory, the monk must acknowledge this presence of God in the mundane, non-spiritual realities, such as the lowly tools of the monastery. This attitude of humility suffuses his whole life with the “odor of sanctity” which allows him, by God’s grace, to spiritualize matter by his own growth in humility.

If this awe before the majesty of the ever-present Divinity is to take true root, the monk must not merely be a man who prays. Rather, he must be a man of prayer whose whole life is a fragrant oblation to God. He must be single-minded, pure of heart. This comes in both word and deed with constant humility as the bedrock upon which the whole is founded. The silence of the cloister itself is not meant to be a tedious vacuum but a ready vehicle by which the tyranny of the external pressure of noise can be vanquished so that the monk is able to become more receptive to the voice of God. Thus humility and silence do go together very closely even before the later steps in the “Ladder”. As stated above, there are no compartments in this life, for he must always be single-minded and ready to hear God’s word that He may incarnate Himself in the monk’s life. The compartments of prayer life itself must be allowed to collapse that the fruits of prayer may be digested throughout the day and bear fruit beyond psalmody, Mass,lectio,etc. Thus, to return to the original image from chapter nineteen, the experience of psalmody in the oratory, where the monks voices are raised with the angels who are in God’s presence, must become the existential state of the monk, who does not allow himself to be separated from God by any trial, no matter how bitter.

This full acceptance of reality and complete submission to God is nothing more or less than the spirituality of ancient Israel which was suffused with “remembrance” which finds its best expression in the shema “hear” of Deuteronomy:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. When the LORD, your God, brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers … take care not to forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”

How appropriate that this is still prayed at first Compline of Sundays and Solemnities in the Roman Rite followed the next morning by the experience of the Lord who sends the Church forth with the promise that He is with her, “always, until the end of the age.” Yet, the goal of this remembrance can move beyond this age of the world, for though man indeed can receive foretastes of the gift of perfect love, he desires to be brought with all of humanity unto everlasting life in this love. Therefore, the Church prays at second Compline:”They shall see the Lord face to face and bear his name on their foreheads. The night shall be no more. They will need no light from lamps or the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever.”

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