St. Benedict on Humility

From The Rule of St. Benedict (Regula) , Chapter 7, on Humility.

Brothers, the Holy Scripture cries to us, saying: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11). By these words it declares to us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, which the Prophet shows must carefully be avoided when he says: “LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me” (Ps 131:1). But why? “Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2).

Accordingly, brothers, if we are going to reach the highest summit of humility, and speedily reach that heavenly exaltation that is won through the lowliness of this present life, our ascending actions must set up a ladder, such as the one that appeared to Jacob in his sleep when he saw Angels descending and ascending. That descent and ascent signifies nothing else other than that we descend by exalting, and ascend by humbling ourselves.

The ladder reaching up, then, represents our life here in this world, which through humility of heart is lifted up to heaven by our Lord. The sides of this ladder represents our body and soul, into which our Divine Vocation has fitted different degrees of humility and discipline, which we must ascend.

The first step, then, of humility is for a man to always have fear of God before his eyes, and never forget it. He must be mindful of all that God has commanded, and remember that those who have contempt for God fall into hell for their sins, and that those who fear Him have everlasting life awaiting them. While he guards himself—at every single moment—from all sin and vice, whether in thought or word, with his eyes, hands or feet, or self-will, let him quickly cut off the desires of the flesh.

Let him recognize that God is always looking down on him from Heaven; that all his actions, wherever he may be, are in clear view to the eye of God, and are at every hour presented to Him by His Angels. The Prophet declares this when he says that God is always with us in our thoughts: “O God of justice, who tries hearts and minds” (Ps 7:10). And again: “The LORD does know human plans; they are only puffs of air” (Ps 94:11). He also says: “you understand my thoughts from afar” (Ps 139:2), and the thought of man shall give you praise. In order therefore that the humble brother may be careful to avoid evil thoughts, he should always say in his heart: “I was honest toward him; I was on guard against sin” (Ps 18: 24).

The Scripture also forbids us to do our own will, saying: “keep your desires in check” (Sir. 18:30). And again: “your will be done” (Mt 6:10).

Calling to mind the Scripture, we have good reason to fear doing our own will: “Sometimes a way seems right to a man, but the end of it leads to death!” (Prv 16:25). We should also fear that which is said of those who ignore these things: “Their deeds are loathsome and corrupt; not one does what is right” (Ps 14:1). And as for the desires of the flesh, we should believe that God is always with us, for the Prophet says when he speaks to the Lord: “My Lord, my deepest yearning is before you” (Ps 38:10).

Let us then be on guard against evil desires, because death sits close to the entrance of delight. For this reason, the Scripture commands us: “Go not after your lusts” (Sir 18:30). If then the eyes of the Lord look upon both good and bad; if He ever looks down from Heaven upon the sons of men in search of those who search for Him; if our works are told to Him day and night by our Angels, we must then always be on guard, brothers, as the Prophet says in the Psalm, “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the human race, to see if even one is wise, if even one seeks God” (Ps 14:2). And though He spares us for the present out of His mercy, He still expects our conversion, and may say to us at some point: “When you do these things should I be silent?” (Ps 50:21).

The second step of humility is for a man not to be wedded to his own will nor seek to satisfy his own desires, but to carry out our Lord’s word: “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38). Similarly we read elsewhere that “Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown.”

The third step of humility is for a man—out of love for God—to submit himself in obedience to his superior, thus imitating our Lord, of Whom the Apostle says: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

The fourth step of humility is when being obedient causes things to become hard, contrary, or even if wrongs are done to him, for him to nonetheless embrace the suffering with a quiet conscience, and not to grow weary, and not give in to them, since the Scripture says: “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13). And again, “be stouthearted, wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27:14). And Scripture further shows that the faithful man should bear all things for our Lord, even contradictions, for it says in the person of the sufferers: “For you we are slain all the day long, considered only as sheep to be slaughtered” (Ps 44:23).

Being very hopeful of their reward from God’s Hands, they go on rejoicing and saying: “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). Likewise in another place the Scripture says: “You tested us, O God, tried us as silver tried by fire. You led us into a snare; you bound us at the waist as captives” (Ps 66:10-11). And to show that we should be under a Superior it goes on to say: “You let captors set foot on our neck” (Ps 66:12). Moreover, in order to fulfill the precepts of the Lord by patience in adversities and injuries: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles” (Mt 5:39-41). With Paul the Apostle they suffer false brothers and persecutions, and bless those who speak ill of them. (2 Cor 11:26)

The fifth degree of humility is for a man to hide nothing from the Abbot, but rather by humble confession, reveal all the evil thoughts of his heart, and the secret faults he commits. The Scripture exhorts us to doing this, for it says: “Commit your way to the LORD; trust that God will act” (Ps 37:5). And again: “Give thanks to the LORD, who is good, whose love endures forever” (Ps 106:1). Furthermore, the Prophet says: “Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my faults to the LORD,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin” (Ps 32:5).

The sixth degree of humility is for a Monk to be content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and in everything thinks of himself an evil and worthless servant, saying with the Prophet: “I was stupid and could not understand; I was like a brute beast in your presence. Yet I am always with you; you take hold of my right hand” (Ps 73:22-23).

The seventh degree of humility is for a Monk, not only to pronounce with his tongue, but also in his very heart to believe himself to be the most abject, and inferior to all; and humbling himself, to say with the Prophet: “But I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people’ (Ps 22:7). “I am mortally afflicted since youth; lifeless, I suffer your terrible blows” (Ps 88:16). And again: “It was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your laws” (Ps 119: 71). “Your hands made me and fashioned me; give me insight to learn your commands” (Ps 119:33).

The eighth degree of humility is for a Monk to do nothing but what the common rule of the Monastery, or the examples of his seniors, leads him to do.

The ninth degree of humility is for a Monk to refrain his tongue from speaking, and be silent until a question is asked of him, remembering the saying of the Scripture: “Where words are many, sin is not wanting” (Prv 10:19), and “Slanderers will not survive on earth” (Ps 140:12).

The tenth degree of humility is not to be easily moved and prompted to laughter, for it is written: “A fool raises his voice in laughter” (Sir 21:20).

The eleventh degree of humility is for a Monk to speak gently, humbly, discreetly, with few words, without laughter, and without raising his voice; for it is written: “wise men’s words are in their hearts” (Sir 21:26).

The twelfth degree of humility is for a Monk to not only have humility in his heart, but to show it physically for all to see, so that whether he is doing the work of God in the Oratory, the monastery, the garden, on a journey or in the field or wherever he may be, whether he sit, walk, or stand, let him always, with head bent down, and eyes fixed upon the earth, think of himself guilty for his sins, and about to be presented before the dreadful judgment of God, ever saying to himself with the Publican in the Gospel: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). And again with the Prophet: “I am very much afflicted, LORD; give me life in accord with your word” (Ps 119:107).

Thus, after ascending all these steps of humility, the Monk will presently come to that love of God which is perfect and casts away our fear. Through this love, everything that he observed through fear in the beginning, he will begin to do by custom, without any difficulty, as if it came naturally, no longer for fear of hell, but now for the love of Christ, good habit, and for taking delight in virtue. All this our Lord will manifest through the work of the Holy Spirit in His servant, now that he is cleansed from defects and sins.

This article is taken from a chapter in the book The Rule by St. Benedict which is available from TAN Books.



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