A Just Appraisal of Self: the Seventh Degree of Humility

Today’s passage from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 51–54, again confronts us with ideas that are easily misunderstood or rejected as being ‘unhealthy’, although I wouldn’t mind betting that many of those keen to lecture others on what Christians (especially nuns!) ought to do tend to take them literally. Humility, as I have often observed, is very attractive — in other people. The problem is we frequently have wrong-headed notions about what humility is and does, so it is worth pondering this wisdom from the sixth century which has produced so many fruits of holiness.

Benedict begins briskly

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart . . . (RB 7. 51)

Genuinely believing one is of less importance than another is actually quite difficult. It doesn’t mean underestimating oneself, denying one’s gifts or pretending one doesn’t have any rights. In fact, the opposite is true. It means making a very just appraisal of oneself and recognizing not only what is given one as sheer gift but also the obligations that gift implies and, crucially, how both oneself and one’s giftedness are at the service of others. To exalt the group above the individual doesn’t sit well with our individualistic age, but it does make for a stronger society. It isn’t only our own giftedness we have to consider, but also our weaknesses and shortcomings and the gifts and weaknesses of others.

What I think Benedict is trying to bring home to us in this seventh step of humility is the fact that we are social beings and the common good demands that we make no special claim for ourselves — nothing that sets us apart from or above others. This, however, is not merely a social good, it is also, pre-eminently, a spiritual good. Clarity and truth about ourselves free us from many of the things that hinder spiritual growth. We are to look to Jesus, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’, and walk in his light. That is the humility that give life in abundance.

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5 thoughts on “A Just Appraisal of Self: the Seventh Degree of Humility”

  1. I’m going to forward this post of yours to a colleague who told me not so long ago that he simply couldn’t believe Sta Teresa when SHE wrote that she was the greatest sinner. The colleague also remarked on Teresa’s confidence when it came to so much else, as if that gave to the lie to her assessment of the state of her own soul. But she DID believe it in her inmost heart, and knew her strength was rooted in ‘His Divine Majesty’. Here, eloquently, you make sense of what in the great saint involved the very opposite of self-deception and self-contradiction.

    • Yes, the terrible pain of realising one has not measured up to the graces/opportunities offered and yet is still loved infinitely. Compared with what we should be, all is dark; but the light that comes to us from the Divine Majesty annihilates the darkness.

  2. The humility you speak of appears to be so tangled up in love it is difficult to know where one starts and the other finishes, which I suppose is the whole point of the rule.

    I think God, to whom we have caused so much pain and suffering, sent his Christ because we do not love ourselves as we should, making us incapable of properly loving others or God as we should.

    God may not always like or approve of what we do, but God loves and approves of us exactly as we are. We can hide nothing from him even if we can hide from ourselves, or even behind our so-called love for others, and heaven knows most of us do it. Yet despite the dreadful pain we humans cause him he continues to love us, arms outstretched to envelope us in his love.

    All we need to do in response is to let go of an ‘inappropriate’ fear of God. So many Christians seem to believe they will be condemned for not being good enough, for not being perfect people. If this is the God some have learned to worship it is hardly surprising others may not wish to. We should ditch such pride and run straight towards those outstretched arms, again, and again and again.

    Christianity is not about being good or perfect, the simple truth is we can be neither, as Pope Francis says, I am a sinner, but our Father still loves us.

    It is perhaps only when we see and accept ourselves as we are, as God sees and accepts us, that real humility, growth and change become possible. The very least we can do in return for God’s love is to want to love ourselves.

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