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.

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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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