Rule of St. Benedict: Humility

My last few posts on St. Benedict have emphasized his balance and the moderating tendency in his rule.  It is important to remember that this is a concession to weakness–the weakness of human nature in general and of beginners in particular.  In this chapter on humility, we see some of that terrifying thirst for excellence that would have made him right at home with the stylites.  He just didn’t want to lay it on anyone else as a law.

I also mentioned the omnipresence of Jacob’s ladders in monastic writing.  The reference is to Genesis 28, where Jacob, in flight from Esau, sleeps at Bethel and has a heavenly vision of angels ascending and descending as on a ladder.  Christian authors (and Hellenized Jews like Philo) often took this as a symbol of spiritual progress.

In chapter seven of the rule, St. Benedict sets up just such a ladder to describe the twelve stages of humility.  It’s the original twelve step program!  And it’s not easy, since it means living like Jesus.  Remember, He dies at the end of the story.

  1. Fear of the Lord.  Not in the wonder and awe sense, either.  Fear of Hell, of sin, of our own flesh.  Fear that God is always watching and knows when we sin.  Fear of the dread and just Judge.  The vigilance over monks and guests that St. Benedict takes out of earlier monastic rules is all raised to the power of wow and directed inwardly.
  2. Love not our own will, but love doing the will of another.  Not just do the will of another.  LIKE it.  Take pleasure in it.
  3. Submit to the superior in perfect obedience.
  4. Be silent and patient in the face of difficulties doing the above.
  5. Hide nothing from the abbot.  Nada.  No sins, no sinful thoughts, no temptations.  Nothing.  Gulp.
  6. Be content with the poorest and worst of everything.
  7. Consider oneself of lower and less account than everyone else.
  8. Do nothing except what is commended by the Rule and the example of the elder monks.
  9. Do not speak unless spoken to.  Ever.
  10. Do not be quick to laugh.
  11. If you do speak–because someone has spoken to you–do so quietly and without laughter.
  12. Visibly manifest this humility–head bowed, eyes to ground, constantly feeling the weight of sin as if present at the final judgment.

So, um…wow.  What am I going to say about this?

Yes, it looks is extreme; one of the standard cautions about the Rule is that it’s a hazard for people prone to scruple or self-hatred.  But it’s not a general counsel for all believers.  To live the Rule of St. Benedict is to become an eschatological sign for the rest of the world.  It is a superhuman kind of existence being described.  It is supposed to be scary, in the same way that sanctity is unnerving, that eternity is discomfiting if you are thinking about it correctly, that saints are not doe-eyed do-nothings who make us all feel good about our lives.

The monastery is a middle-space between the world and the eremetic life.  It’s a training ground for those who will achieve a kind of spiritual perfection in this life and go off into the wilderness to do battle with the devil (he doesn’t mean that as a metaphor, btw).  St. Benedict wrote his rule precisely because he thinks people can’t jump right into this kind of extreme life; they require training.  It would be insane to force it on people.

How does a lay person get anything out of this chapter?  I generally dislike softening the rough edges, so let’s try to keep this a little bit radical:

First, remember that this is a ladder and we are standing on the ground looking up.  Ever been on a 40-foot ladder before?  It’s pretty scary.  This one is taller.  The farther up we look, the more distorted our view of things.  It’s important to keep in mind that those later steps only make sense after you’ve been climbing.  It’s easy to cast aspersions from the cheap seats, or, in this case, the ground.  How many people even have a foot on the first rung?

Also, this is a ladder.  You do the first step first.  Perhaps our reflexive horror at some of those later steps–how neurotic!  how self-loathing!–comes from imagining them out of order.  It would be neurotic and self-loathing to go around in “9-12 Mode” as if it could make you obedient and holy.  It would be fakery, counterfeit holiness.  It’s kids playing dress up, not really understanding what St. Benedict is talking about.

And that’s because the ladder is a progression from interior conversion to exterior manifestation.  You don’t make progress on this ladder from the outside in, but from the inside out.  The ladder is rooted in the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum, daily conversion of habits.  Through inward transformation and renewal, we enable these further steps.  By the way, the motto associated with the vow of conversatio morum is rursus incipiemus nunc et semper–“always we begin again” (actually the Latin is neater; learn Latin).

The overall sense I get from this ladder is honesty.  A truthfulness about self and God and world sets us free from the self-bondage of our sick will.  My will is not the measure of this world; I am not the agenda-setter for the people around me and I have to come to terms with this.  Being small and letting go of my own supposed greatness and not concealing my failings from others doesn’t always make a lot of sense to worldly eyes, but be ye not conformed.  The truth shall set you free.

As always with the Rule, plenty more to say.  My initial reason for looking at this chapter was to set up a post on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who does something pretty cool with it.  To be continued.

3 thoughts on “Rule of St. Benedict: Humility

  1. Where does the expression ‘rursus…’ actually originate/appear? It doesn’t show up in any online searches not linked to the Abbey nor in the latin text of the Rule.


    1. As far as I know it originates with our monastery. We’ve always been a bit more sense than letter, with a slightly odd origin story and subsequent history. There’s a funny story about a dispute over the rursus quotation, but I would have to refresh my memory with our historian to tell it correctly.


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