Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 7, The Ladder of Humility

In Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict--Humility--we encounter the famous ladder of humility, the twelve steps and stages that Benedict suggests mark the road to humility.

The First Step of the ladder:
10The first step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it...12While he guards himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire, 13let him recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God's sight and are reported by angels every hour.
Yikes! The angels are reporting on us every hour? That's not a very comforting thought.

Still, I think we can see what Benedict is getting at. I think the issue here goes to integrity, holding oneself accountable across the public and private spheres of life. We all know that humans behave abysmally when we are are in anonymous situations. Humility demands situational consistency, even when we are alone.

The Second and Third Steps of the ladder:
31The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasures in the satisfaction of his desires; 32rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: "I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me...34The third step of humility is that a man submits to his superior in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: "He became obedient even to death."
As noted earlier in the Rule, for Benedict obedience and submission are key features of humility. In our discussions, I framed this as an issue of being responsive to the needs of others.

The Fourth Step of the ladder:
35The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering 36and endures it without weakening or seeking escape. For the Scripture has it: "Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved."...42In truth, those who are patient amid hardship and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord's command: "When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two."
Of interest to me here is how Benedict connects patience in the face of unjust treatment with the Sermon on the Mount.

The Fifth Step of the ladder:
44The fifth step of humility is that a man does not conceal from his abbot any sinful thoughts entering his heart, or any wrongs committed in secret, but rather confesses them humbly.
I'm sure alarm bells are going off about how abusive this might be, but transparency, authenticity and confession do seem critical in cultivating humility or, at the very least, an honest self-accounting. How else to puncture self-illusions?

The Sixth Step:
49The sixth step of humility is that a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and regards himself a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given.
Considering yourself "worthless" is tough to swallow. But there is something about being willing and seeking out "the last place."

I remember back in my ACU theatre days when we did dinner theatres, actors serving dinner in costume before the show. Clean up after the show was, as you might expect, a big ordeal. And the rule was this: The leading male role cleaned the men's restroom and the leading female role cleaned the women's bathroom. Those in the "highest place" were given the dirtiest, lowest job. The sensibility here was very Benedictine. Growing toward humility, however, seems to be more about being willing to seek out these jobs. Volunteering to clean the bathroom.

Incidentally, I actually pondered doing something like this in my Department at school. My idea was to have faculty and students sign up and take turns cleaning the bathroom in our building. The restroom is, of course, cleaned by a cleaning person in the evenings. But I wanted to take this job over, to do it ourselves. I thought it would be good for the students to see their faculty cleaning the toilet. And for students to participate alongside as well. As you can imagine, this idea didn't go over well. But I still think it's a good idea.

The Seventh Step:
51The seventh step of humility is that a man not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value...
This one of those places in The Rule where you remember that it is a medieval monastic document, even if it was more humane and less strict than its predecessors. Still, the issue here seems to be about being humble in heart and not just in speech. A lot of people pretend, verbally, to be humble. Benedict wants humility to go deep.

The Eighth Step:
55The eighth step of humility is that a monk does only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and the example set by his superiors.
Humility is about participating in the common life of others. Humility is a communal discipline, about learning to follow the rules just like everyone else. Be a team player.

The Ninth Step:
56The ninth step of humility is that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question.
People who are full of themselves do like to hear themselves talk. But we are not as smart or as interesting as we would like to believe. So perhaps we should have less talking and more listening. Listening to others is an expression of humility. Listening a form of hospitality and making room.

The Tenth and Eleventh Steps:
59The tenth step of humility is that he is not given to ready laughter...60The eleventh step of humility is that monk speaks gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice, 61as it is written: "A wise man is known by his few words."
The comments about laughter here are difficult. But the general concern, however, seems to be with a lack of seriousness. Frivolity. The concern might also be about histrionics, people who dramatically draw attention to themselves.

The Twelfth Step:
62The twelfth step of humility is that a monk always manifest humility in bearing no less than in his heart, so that it is evident 63at the Work of God, in oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else...
The goal is to so internalize a humble spirit that finds expression no matter where we are or who we are with.

And at the conclusion of all the Steps, the vision of the final product:
67Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the perfect love of God which casts out fear. 68Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit 69no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.
It's an interesting conclusion, suggesting that if love and joy aren't the motives in all this true humility and spiritual maturity cannot be achieved. If morbidity and a fear of punishment are driving the process we aren't going to be truly humble.

Love and joy must infuse all. Lose sight of that and you'll misunderstand the enterprise, every step of the way.

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8 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 7, The Ladder of Humility”

  1. I went to the monastery as a 39 year old. I was an engineer. I became the lowest in the convent. the only way I survived was to keep remembering another translation of the 7th step: I am a worm and no man... Sounds pathetic but it got me through 4 years of cleaning up after sisters.

    It also worked well after I got out and I needed to remember I'm not entitled to anything.

  2. I think the risk, and reality, of spiritual abuse in all of this is quite real. I think there are treasures here, but also real techniques that are currently being used to abuse people as well. Separating the gold from the crap seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

  3. A few things.

    1. Whenever I see a post in this series, I always misread the title as "Friends with Benedict" and think it's a pun on "Friends with Benefits," and it is always hilarious.
    2. I think that asking faculty to clean toilets is a marvelous idea. I would personally volunteer to clean toilets as well if it meant that faculty would do so. But then again, I've cleaned public and staff toilets before, and the latter is always less unpleasant. (I also think faculty should organize soup kitchens once a month, and they should be required to eat with those who come and join in their conversation.)
    3. As much as I think that the ways you are framing Benedict's rules are productive, I am worried about the rules themselves. The Eighth and Ninths Steps combined completely disable any prophetic voice, and whatever harm custom does shall continue.

  4. Love, joy and gratitude are hard to fit into prideful lifestyles and attitudes. There's an interesting balance between feeling "special" and loved in God's sight and being "a worm" for whom Jesus died. Surely true service to others who are "lessers" is one mark of some kind of humility. Benedict is a good place to start tho king about all this. As always, thank you.

  5. As to your #3. That's one of the interesting things I've discovered about The Rule. Though The Rule has a huge reputation for spiritual wisdom there is a lot of stuff in it that is shockingly and appallingly medieval and very hard to swallow. Overall, I like The Rule but I find myself picking around it a great deal.

  6. Two reflections: firstly, this reminds me of Nietzsche's 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. One of his main critiques of Christianity is that it has made a virtue out of all that is lowly in humanity and indeed called that lowliness 'God'. To quote:

    "They called God that which opposed and afflicted them: and verily, there was much hero-spirit in their worship!And they knew not how to love their God otherwise than by nailing men to the cross! As corpses they thought to live; in black draped they their corpses; even in their talk do I still feel the evil
    flavour of charnel-houses. And he who liveth nigh unto them liveth nigh unto black pools, wherein the toad singeth his song with sweet
    gravity. Better songs would they have to sing, for me to believe in their Saviour: more like saved ones would his disciples
    have to appear unto me! Naked, would I like to see them: for beauty alone should preach penitence. But whom would that disguised affliction
    I take Nietzsche's critique very seriously lest we make ourselves into less than we are and call it 'Life'. A kind of false humility for the sake of religion. I know this is not what Benedict intends, but there is a danger here I think.

    Secondly, there is also a danger that 'a rule of humility' (like any of these rules) become a new Law. That is, we must always protect against works theologies creeping into our discipline. I would like to hear more in the language that points to humility being a fruit of the Spirit of Christ rather than the more apparent, work of those who would walk with God. This is also not the intent, but a very real danger.

  7. One thought on the comments on laughter.  I think that one things Benedict might be going after here is what we might know as snark, or clownishness.  Playing the clown, playing for laughter, drawing attention to yourself as the one who always has the witty remark is not condusive to humility in most cases.  So it's partly lack of seriousness, but . . .

    Much "humor" in our culture consists of mocking things and laughing at things that *ought* to be taken seriously.  So I think there is also a warning here against "laughing off" those things that are truly deep and difficult and challenging for us.

  8.  In answer to the question of the prophetic voice, taken as a whole Benedict's Rule has plenty of material that solidly supports the pursuit of social justice.  Joan Chittister in particular read the summons to humility as a turn to "humus", to earth. An awareness of our groundedness, our shared life with others necessarily leads to the articulation of concerns of justice. What's given up in humility is our claim to status, the automatic, reflexive social positioning that goes on in our heads. The challenge of the final steps is the recognition that to become free for others, we must deliberately go through something like kenosis.

    That said, politics from the perspective of this humility does look different than the so-called "prophetic voice." Here, perhaps the metaphor of the body comes to play: we not only need a clear voice (sometimes), but the patient persistence as well.

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