Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Integrated Humility

The seventh chapter of St. Benedict’s Rule is entirely devoted to humility, the virtue that stands as the direct opponent of pride. Properly understood, there is no honor without humility as its predecessor.[1] St. Peter tells us that we are to clothe ourselves with humility and be submissive to each other.[2] St. Paul tells us that we are to take on the mind of Christ and model his humility.[3]

Humility, opposed to pridefulness, is undeniably one of the interior characteristics of the Christian life, monastic or otherwise, that sets it apart from all other ways of living. It is something that must be sought and acquired through effort and once gained can fly out the window in an instant of carelessness.

Asceticism is not a popular word in our modern world but it is still a good word though it conjures up ideas and images of monks starving themselves through long fasts and flagellating themselves on account of their perceived failures in thought and deed. It is, however, an important word. It is a word that best describes our efforts in climbing St. Benedict’s ladder of humility.

Merton tells us that “Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are really something better than we are. If we really know ourselves we quietly take our proper place in the order designed by God. And so supernatural humility adds much to our human dignity by integrating us in the society of other men and placing us in our right relation to them and to God. Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.”[4]

Humility integrates us in a right relation to the society that surrounds us. It integrates us in a right relation with God. It integrates us, also, in a right relation with our true identity as a human person. Humility, then, manifests itself in all areas, all aspects, of life.[5] In step twelve we see that humility isn’t content to overlook or leave out any aspect of life. As a matter of the heart it permeates the whole being, the whole of life, and follows us wherever we go and into whatever we are doing. It does bear within itself a certain penitential nature that we can’t escape and shouldn’t attempt to slight or stifle. Doing so easily leads one into the degeneration of antinomianism. Penances, when entered into carefully and under wise spiritual direction so as to avoid extremes that do little more than turn us into freaks,[6] are tutors of the soul that lead us in our spiritual growth and development, disciplines that keep us centered in and focused on the higher ideals of the Christian life.

[1] Proverbs 18:12
[2] 1 Peter 5.5
[3] Philippians 2:5-11
[4] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p. 113
[5] RB 7:62-66
[6] RB 49:8-10