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.