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Saint Benedict’s 12 Degrees Of Humility

The following excerpt was taken from The Rule of Saint Benedict and is an explanation of the twelve degrees of humility according to the Father of Western Monasticism himself.

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). 

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.

First Step

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).

Second Step

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.”

Third Step

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).

Fourth Step

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)

Fifth Step

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). 

Sixth Step

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).

Seventh Step

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).

Eight Step

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.

Ninth Degree

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).

Tenth Step

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).

Eleventh Step

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).

Twelfth Step

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 Rule of Saint Benedict by St. Benedict which is available from TAN Books



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