The Value of Humility
‘The word of God in Scripture teaches us in clear and resounding terms that anyone who lays claim to a high position will be brought low and anyone who is modest in self-appraisal will be lifted up. This is Christ’s teaching about the guest who took the first place at the king’s banquet: all who exalt themselves, he said, will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted. He taught us by these words that whenever one of us is raised to a position of prominence there is always an element of pride involved. The Psalmist shows his concern to avoid this when he says: there is no pride in my heart, O Lord, nor arrogance in the look of my eyes; I have not aspired to a role too great for me nor the glamour of pretensions that are beyond me. We should be wary of such pride. And why does he say this? It is because lack of humility calls for correction and so the psalm goes on: If I failed to keep a modest spirit and raised my ambitions too high, then your correction would come down on me as though I were nothing but a newly weaned child on its mother’s lap.’
Whenever I read any of Benedict’s words about humility the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, always comes to mind. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, I am a devotee of Merton, I have read a lot of his works and have completed an MA Thesis on his writings, so I am somewhat bias. Secondly, from reading his autobiography, his diaries and other works, humility is something that he struggled with in his monastic vocation. Although I do not believe that Merton was an intrinsically prideful person he was an artist, a prolific writer, and there was a desire to be known for his work. The struggle to balance this with a monastic vocation was evident and it was his two abbots that really helped him to find the way.
Merton was once described as the sort of man who wanted to live in a hermitage, but have that hermitage in the middle of Times Square with a big neon sign that read ‘Hermit’ flashing over the top. He had a desire to be known but also a desire to disappear into God. When the first PhD was written about Merton, he was still alive and upon reading it he was both flattered but also perturbed and remarked ‘I have always said far too much far too soon’ – he was his biggest critic and that came from, I believe, this conflict within, to be humble but also the desire to be someone.
It is difficult to be elevated to a position of prominence without it going to our heads. We are human and there is a natural human inclination to want to be liked. This is especially problematic in the church. If you follow the calling that God has placed upon your life, be that into ordained ministry, the religious life, marriage or serving God in another equally important capacity as a layman, sometimes it is noticed and recognition comes. When God gives us the capacity to achieve the calling placed upon us, it is far too easy to take the credit. But this path will lead to ruin. It is always pertinent to remember that those who deserve to be called saint are the very people who know they don’t deserve it and yet strive for it.
‘If the peak of our endeavour, then, is to achieve profound humility, if we are eager to be raised to that heavenly height, to which we can climb only through humility during our present life, then let us make for ourselves a ladder like the one which Jacob saw in his dream. On that ladder angels of God were shown to him going up and down in a constant exchange between heaven and earth. It is just such an exchange that we need to establish in our own lives, but with this difference: our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God.’
This passage makes clear that the achievement of humility is beyond tricky. It is something that the desert fathers dwelt on often. The moment you begin to make progress on this most arduous path you will notice it and be pleased with yourself, which is pride in your achievements and will undo the work that has been going on in your soul. So how is it possible? As human beings with these natural character traits and such, to get closer to God? The key I think that Benedict uses to unlock this problem is the phrase ‘exchange’ – there must be something transactional happening between God and the Soul. The Soul must exchange the desire for power, success, wealth – and most importantly, the idolatry of self, for the humility, grace, and mercy of God. Only when the Soul is prepared to surrender the will to the great will of God and lower itself, will God lift it to the next rung of the ladder.
One of the stories from the desert fathers that I really cling to when thinking about humility is this: One day a wise master was teaching his student. The student was making mistakes and getting his lessons wrong, often. The master flew into a rage and shooed the student from his dwelling vowing to teach him no longer. There the master remained for several days. He began to feel guilt for the way he had treated his student, for his fit of rage and his lack of patience. He resolved, after several days in prayer and fasting, to go and find his student and make amends. Upon opening his door he found the student sitting outside, exactly where he had left him. They were reconciled, but the master informed his student that their roles were now reversed.
This beautiful story captures what it is to be gripped by pride and suddenly brought low. The humility shown by the original student displaces the pride of the master and teaches him true humility. That was one lesson that he got right.
‘The ladder, then, will symbolise for each of us our life in this world during which we aspire to be lifted up to heaven by the Lord, if only we can learn humility in our hearts. We can imagine that he has place the steps of the ladder, held in place by the sides which signify our living body and soul, to invite us to climb on them. Paradoxically, to climb upwards will take us down to earth but stepping down will lift us toward heaven. The steps themselves, then, mark the decisions we are called to make in the exercise of humility and self discipline.’
Benedict introduces a step-by-step programme to achieve humility, or at the very least, begin on that path. The image of the rungs of the ladder being held together by the body and the soul show the importance of spiritual discipline and the tempering of the body, this very much brings to mind the ‘work and prayer’ mantra of the Benedictine community. To work and therefore strengthen the body, to pray and in doing so strengthen the soul which in turn both between them keep the rungs firmly in place that we may move up and down them.
Self-discipline is am important element as this is not something that can be imposed upon an unwilling Soul. There must be some desire to begin this process, even if the will is weak. This is something that I often tell to penitents in confession if they are dealing with a particularly difficult sin that is clinging closely to them. If they cannot truthfully say they want to rid themselves of it (because it is enjoyable) then I often ask, do you at least want to want to be rid of it. Although the wording is similar wanting to want something is subtly different from wanting it. While wanting it may seem far away and unachievable to want to want it is a step closer. It is a recognition of a need to change and a want for that to happen even if the will is not quite ready to get to grips with it.
The path to humility that Benedict sets out has twelve steps, which we shall begin to look at next time.