I have edited the text for the use of St. Anthony of the Desert, our own Chapter of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Our Chapter meets on the Second Sunday of each month at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. to sing the Offices and share in a cold collation. All are welcome.
Chapter VII Of Humility
Introduction and the First Step of Humility
Brothers and Sisters, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: “Every one that exalts himself will be humbled; and he that humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11)[i]. Since Scripture says this; it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride. The Prophet declares that he guards himself against this, saying: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Ps 131:1). What then? “If I was not humbly minded, but were exalted instead; then you would have treated me like a weaned child upon my mother’s lap.” (Ps 131:2).
It is important to understand that Oblates are not Monks or Nuns. Monastics live in an environment where those within the monastery, by virtue of their vows, have committed themselves to fulfill the precepts of the Rule of St. Benedict, in the context of their community. The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration website gives the following description of the vows taken by Monks and Nuns.
Our Benedictine vows come from the Rule of Saint Benedict which was written centuries before poverty, chastity and obedience became the standard vows.
Saint Benedict's vows (or promises as he called them) are stability, ‘conversatio’ and obedience. Stability is a commitment of lifelong fidelity to God and our Congregation. ‘Conversatio’ is a commitment to embrace all of monastic life as a path to holiness and conversion. This includes poverty or simplicity of life and chastity. Obedience is a vow of listening, responsive love to the voice of God as it comes to us through prayer, the Rule of Saint Benedict, Scripture, our prioress and our sisters.[ii]
Oblates live in very different circumstances, and those around the Oblates are most often not committed to the same set of values to which the Oblates aspire. Nevertheless Oblates strive to take seriously the call to stability, conversatio, and obedience insofar as their station in life permits. At the center of Benedictine life is the understanding of humility; but that humility is dynamically opposite to the aspirations of the world around them.
On the surface that may sound very academic, but it’s not. It is often a painful reality. Oblates frequently struggle with the need for personal balance in settings that can be very conflictual, in the family, in the various places of employment, and even within the parish church. The call to humility may sound as odd as Latin in the ears of the children of the world; but listen to what the Rule of St. Benedict has to say to the Oblates who live in less than ideal circumstances?
Therefore, brothers and sisters, if we wish to reach the greatest height of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that heavenly exaltation to which we climb in the present life by our actions, we must erect the ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream, on which the angels were ascending and descending (Gen 28:12). Without a doubt, we understand this ascending and descending to be nothing other than we descend by pride and ascend by humility.
The erected ladder is our life in this present world, by which, if the heart is humble, the Lord lifts us up to heaven. Our body and our soul are the two sides of this ladder; and into these two sides of our Divine Vocation, as Monks or Oblates, has inserted the various steps of humility or discipline which we must climb. If you would learn peace, learn humility. If you embrace self-exaltation you embrace the disharmony that governs the world.
The starting place is learning Godly fear [or awe]. The Book of Proverbs tells us that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”[iii] The very idea that God is to be feared is antithetical to the children of the world, and especially to the children of the world within the Church. According to C. S. Lewis, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented'? What we want, in fact, is not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day, 'a good time was had by all'.”[iv] Those who hold God in awe understand that God’s Holiness is immutable in its perfection. Therefore, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire”.[v]
The first step of humility is that a man always ought to have the fear of God before his eyes ( Ps 35:1), never forgetting it, and always remembering all that God has commanded. He [each brother or sister] should keep in mind that those who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for those who hold God in awe. And while he guards himself always against sin and vices of thought, word, deed, and self-will, let him also make haste to cut off the lusts of the flesh. Let him recall that God always sees him from Heaven, and that the eye of God looks on all his works, and that the angels report his works to God every hour.
This has a direct implication on the calling of the Oblate as well as the Monastic. To assume that the Monastic has less temptation than an Oblate is to gravely underestimate the temptations that beset the Monastic. Temptation is a universal experience. Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”[vi] Monastic and Oblate alike suffer temptations.
This section of The Rule offers three antidotes, and one of those is an understanding of accountability; heaven is not a mythical place, and neither is hell. Secondly, although we are dependent on grace we need to take action and guard our minds against sin and vice, and make haste to cut off, instead of entertain the lusts of the flesh. Many contemporary Christians fail to take this latter point seriously thinking that grace falls on the passive, rather than on the obedient. The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent makes both our obedience and our participation clear, “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.”[vii]
The prophet tells us the same thing saying “The searcher of hearts and minds is God” (Ps 7:9). And again: “The Lord knows the thoughts of men” (Ps 94:11) And also he says: “You discern my thoughts from afar.” (Ps 139:2). And: “The thoughts of man shall praise You” (Ps 76:10 Vulgate). Therefore, in order that he may always be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother always say in his heart: “I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.” (Ps 18:23)
The Lord knows every thought that crosses our mind, as well as every word that is on our lips. The full text is helpful, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.[viii]
Third, remember that we are never really alone. The shocking truth is that not only does God see us at all times, but according to St. Benedict even the angels, always present with us, report our works to God every hour.
Therefore we are forbidden to do our own will, because Scripture tells us: “turn away from your base desires” (Sir 18:30). Therefore we ask God that His will may be done in us (Mt 6:10). And we are rightly taught not to do our own will, when we heed the warning of Scripture, “There are ways that seem right to men, but the end plunges them into the depths of hell” (Prov 16:25).
Remember that Obedience is one of the two fundamental Benedictine vows. St. Benedict tells us that if we would fight against temptation, we will have to learn obedience, saying, “Therefore we are forbidden to do our own will.” In Chapter V of the Rule, St. Benedict lays down the principle, “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience,”[ix] He does not leave this as an abstract principle, “they must carry out the superior’s order as promptly as if the command came from God himself.”[x]
Let me remind you of the teachings of St. Paul who wrote in an era when persecution was immanent, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”[xi]
Rampant in the American ethos is the notion that each individual, Bible in hand, has the right, no! the Duty to criticize religious leaders. That is very far from the mind of St. Benedict. St. Vincent of Lerins wrote, “We take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”[xii] As Benedictines we are not called to be critics, but to be obedient, and that obedience is the foundation of humility and the source of our stability.
And we also fear what is said to the negligent, “They are corrupted and have become abominable in their pleasure" (Ps 14:1). As for desires of the flesh, let us believe that God is thus ever present to us, since the Prophet says to the Lord: “Every desire of mine is before You” (Ps 37:9). We must, therefore, guard against every evil desire, because death lurks close by the gate of pleasure. For this reason Scripture commands us, saying: "Pursue not your lusts" (Sir 18:30).
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, may be an Ang Lee martial arts film, but it also has a spiritual application; death lurks close by the gate of pleasure. It is not that God is against pleasure, after all He created pleasure for His own good pleasure as well as ours,[xiii] but it is absolutely clear that God is against those illicit “pleasures” which will damage the soul, the inner person. That after all is the point of the Ten Commandments and of Jesus understanding of the Law in Matthew, Chapter Five. If you play with fire, you will be burned.
In the conclusion of the first step of humility St. Benedict returns to an earlier theme:
The eyes of the Lord observe the good and the bad (Prov 15:3), and the Lord always looks down from heaven on the children of men to see whether there are any who understand or seek after God (Ps 14:1). Our actions are also reported to the Lord day and night by the angels who are appointed to watch over us daily. Therefore we must always be on our guard. As the Prophet says in the Psalm, so that God may not see that we have "turned aside to evil and become unprofitable" (Ps 14:1). Take note that He has spared us in the present time because He is loving and waits for us to be changed for the better, and also in order that He might not say to us in the future: "These things you have done and I was silent" (Ps 50:21).
Remember that the first step is always the first step, and if you don’t climb the first step you won’t reach the second step. In his conclusion of the first step St. Benedict returns to the theme of the Watching God and His angels. We are not alone, we never are. God is always watching. What we do is reported day and night to God by His angels. That is the basic reason why we ought to be on guard, and it obviously has to do with holding God in awe. In order to understand the final verse in the first step of humility it helps to look at it in context. It has to do with our treatment, not only of those in authority, but also our treatment of each other, “You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son. These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”[xiv] Humility is not an abstract quality that exists in a vacuum, but something that is always worked out in community.
[i] Care has been taken to verify all Scripture citations so that they may be found easily, and in some cases the text has been modified to conform to the English Standard or Revised Standard Versions for clarity.
[ii] The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration: http://www.benedictinesisters.org/content.php?pageid=5&secid=2&subsecid=5
[iii] Proverbs 1:7
[iv] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
[v] Hebrews 12:28-29
[vi] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 211
[viii] Psalm 139:1-4
[ix] RB, Ch. V, verse 1
[xi] Romans 13:1-2
[xii] St. Vincent of Lerins, The Vincentian Canon, “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
[xiii] Luke 12:32 "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
[xiv] Psalm 50:20-21