Conviction: the Seventh Step of Humility

It is easy to misunderstand St Benedict’s seventh step of humility (RB 7. 51–54). He is not saying we should think badly of ourselves but that what we say and what we think about ourselves should be the same — there should be perfect harmony between interior and exterior. It is no good proclaiming that we are of less account than anyone else if secretly we don’t believe it. That is really just another kind of pride concealed under a veneer of false modesty. No, once we have grasped the truth about ourselves, we shouldn’t try to fudge it or explain it away, even to ourselves. We must instead live the truth, with conviction.

In effect, Benedict is restating Cassian’s eighth indicator of humility, with a catena of scriptural texts by way of emphasis. Like Cassian, he wants the monk to interiorize his monastic practice so that it becomes part of his very being. The words he uses are forceful: intimo corde credat affectu, ‘he should believe in his inmost heart’. Again, it is a matter of faith, but faith that captivates mind and heart, leaving no room for doubt. It isn’t self-indulgent self-abasement we are aiming at but a transformation of the way in which we view things.

The passages from scripture Benedict quotes are concerned with humiliation in its different aspects. The most important of these is Ps 21 (22). 7, which the Church always understands with reference to the Passion. The humiliation of Jesus on the Cross is, of course, his triumph and seen positively. So, too, is the psalmist’s meditative reference to the good God has brought out of an experience of suffering and failure (Ps 118 (119). 71/73). More problematic for modern readers, however, is the allusion to involuntary and apparently negative experiences (Ps 87 (88). 16) which we might think more likely to produce resentment than any spiritual good. Clearly, Benedict doesn’t see things that way. For him, whatever humbles us also heals and makes whole. Although he doesn’t explicitly mention Matthew 11. 29, I think the image of Jesus ‘meek and humble of heart’ dominates this particular reflection and provides the necessary context. Our humility must be grounded in His.