Thursday, September 29, 2005

Spiritual voice (18): from St. Benedict's "The Rule"

[Born into a good family in the Umbrian village of Nursia and educated at Rome, Benedict (480-543) grew weary of the evils of the city and fled to the mountains of Subiaco to live as a hermit. He became well known for his piety, his wisdom, and his humility. In 529 A.D., he founded a monastery in Monte Cassino, midway between Naples and Rome, and he remained there until his death. In this monastery Benedict wrote his famous Rule, which provided a much needed accountability to the many roving prophets and hermits of the day. In the Rule, Benedict gives clear, direct, and effective disciplines for living a holy life. His writings inspired an important period of renewal and are still with us today because of their wisdom and insight. The following passage deals with the subject of humility. Using the metaphor of “Jacob’s ladder,” Benedict discusses twelve steps of humility. The modern reader may find it hard to hear his austere teaching about the reality of hell and the sinfulness of humankind, but in an age of “feel good” spirituality, we need his words.]

Friends, the Holy Scriptures cry out to us saying, “Everyone that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.” Therefore, they show us that every exaltation of ourselves is a kind of pride. The Psalmist declares that he guarded against this, saying, “Lord, my heart is not puffed up; nor are my eyes haughty. Neither have I walked in great matters nor in things above me.”

If we wish to reach the height of humility in this present life, we must journey up the ladder of Jacob, wherein he saw angels ascending and descending. The way of ascending is humility; the way of descending is pride. If our heart is humble we shall be lifted to heaven. For our body and our soul are two sides of this ladder, and each step is a step in humility. We must first understand the steps of humility and then enter into the disciplines of them.

The first step of humility is to have a constant reverence for God before our eyes. We must shun our tendency of forgetfulness and be always mindful of God’s commands. Consider in your mind how those who despise God will burn in hell for their sin, and that life everlasting is prepared for those who have reverence for God.

Le us remember that God sees all from heaven, that the eyes of God are upon us at all times and in all places. The Scriptures teach us that, “The Lord knows all of our thoughts.” For this reason we must turn away from evil and ask God in prayer that his will be done in us. Again, the Scriptures say, “There are ways that seem right to us, but in the end will lead us to ruin.” So let us live in the faith that God is ever present to us.

The second step on the ladder of humility is rejecting our own will and desires and, instead, doing God’s will. The Lord Jesus said, “I came not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me.” It is also said, “Self-will has its punishment, but the doing of God’s will wins the crown.”

The third step of humility by which we ascend to heaven is when, because of our love for God, we submit ourselves to another in all obedience. By this we imitate the Lord of whom the Apostle Paul said, “He became obedient even unto death.”

The fourth step of humility is accepting the hardship of the commandments and enduring with patience the injustices and afflictions we face. We are called to endure and not grow weary or give up, but to hold fast. The Scriptures teach us, “They that preserve unto the end shall be saved.”

Those who have faith must bear every disagreeable thing for the Lord, keeping in mind the promise, “But in all these things we shall overcome because of Him who loves us.” God shall try us by fire just as silver is tried and purified. Our Lord teaches us that when we are struck on one cheek, we must turn the other; when asked for a piece of our clothing, give the whole thing; when asked to go one mile, go two; when we are cursed by others, we must bless them.

The fifth step of humility is to keep no secrets from the one to whom we confess. We must humbly confess all of our evil thoughts and all of our evil actions. Again, the Scriptures teach us, “Reveal your way to the Lord and trust in Him.” And it says further, “Confess to the Lord, for He is good. His mercy endures forever.” Remember what the Psalmist said, “I have acknowledged my sin to you, O Lord, and my injustice I have not kept hidden. You have forgiven the wickedness of my sins.”

The sixth step of humility is to be content in all things. We are to be content with the meanest and worst of everything. In all things we must be mindful of our own lowliness, considering ourselves to be lowly and meek, knowing that though we have nothing in this life, the Lord is always present with us.

The seventh step of humility is when we declare with our tongue and believe in our inmost soul that we are the lowliest and vilest of all, humbling ourselves and saying with the Psalmist, “But I am a worm, and I am the reproach of all, the outcast of the people.” The Scriptures teach us that it is good to be humbled so that we may learn God’s commandments.

The eighth step of humility is to obey the common rule of the monastery. We do this by doing nothing except what is sanctioned by the rule and example of the elders.

The ninth step of humility is to withhold our tongue from speaking, keeping silence until we are asked. The Scriptures teach us that “in the multitude of words there comes sin.” And further, “A person full of speaking is not established in the earth.”

The tenth degree of humility is when we are not easily provoked to laughter. For the Scriptures remind us, “The fool exalts his voice in laughter.”

The eleventh step of humility is to speak with few and sensible words. We are to speak gently and not with a loud voice. Again, the Scriptures teach us, “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”

The twelfth step of humility is to be not only humble of heart, but also humble in appearance. No matter where we are---whether doing to work of God, or in the garden, or on a journey---we should adopt the posture of reverence, ever mindful of who we are. Our attitude should be that of the publican in the Gospel who said, with his eyes fixed on the ground, “Lord, I am a sinner and I am not worthy to lift my eyes to heaven.”

If we ascend all of these steps of humility, we shall arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casts our all fear. If we persist in observing them, we will begin to keep them without any effort. In time it will no longer be a force of habit, but a way of life. Though we may begin them with a fear of hell, we will begin living them out of a love for Christ, developing habits of good, and taking pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by his Holy Spirit in you, his laborer, now cleansed form vice and sin.

[Questions to think about:

*Benedict states that when we try to exalt ourselves, we are humbled, and when we humble ourselves, we are exalted. Is this true from your experience?

*While many modern readers may have difficulty accepting Benedict’s use of the fear of hell as a motivating factor, it has been part of Christian theology for centuries, dating back to Jesus himself (Matt. 25). Is the fear of hell a motivating factor for you? Should it be? Why or why not?

*In looking over the twelve steps of humility, which of them would be the easiest for you to climb? Which would be the most difficult? Why?]

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