The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA - The "Ladder of Humility"

In this issue, we will continue our look at an early Desert Father who is most widely revered in the Western Churches, but who is nevertheless a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, too. Although his "desert" was a mountain in Italy, Abba Benedict lived a life of great asceticism and formulated a monastic rule that is widely followed in the Roman Catholic Church. We will be looking at various aspects of St. Benedict's life and rule over the next several issues. Today's thought is a little long, but it gives us an excellent overview of "humility" and how to obtain it.

BEGIN: QUESTION: (What is) the nature of the brother's humility, how is it acquired, and how once acquired is it maintained?

ANSWER: The Lord has replied through the master:

Holy Scripture cries out to us, brothers, saying: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted." In saying this, therefore, it makes clear to us that all exaltation is a kind of pride. The prophet shows that he was on his guard against this, saying: "O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty." And he continues in the same vein: "I do not busy myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me." But what "if I was not humble minded, if I exalted my soul? Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so will you requite my soul." So, brothers, if we wish to reach the summit of supreme humility and if we would arrive swiftly at that heavenly exaltation to which one rises by the humility of the present life, we must, by our deeds mounting up, erect that ladder which, raised to heaven, appeared to Jacob in a dream and on which angels descending and ascending were shown to him. We do not doubt that this going down and up has no other purpose than to show that exaltation descends and humility ascends. Now, this ladder set up is our life in the world, and with heart and head made humble in this, its present time, it lifts up to heaven its last end, death, exalted by the Lord. We hold as absolutely certain that the sides of this ladder are our body and soul, into which sides God's call has inserted various rungs of humility and discipline which must be climbed.

The disciple, then, mounts the first rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, having the fear of God always before his eyes, he at all times shuns forgetfulness and is ever mindful of all that God has commanded, thus constantly pondering in his mind how hell burns because of their sins those who despise the Lord, and what eternal life has in store for those who fear God. And at all times keeping himself from sins and vices, of thought, tongue, hands, feet and self-will, as also from the desires of the flesh, let the disciple be sure that God is always, at every moment, looking at him from heaven and that his deeds are everywhere kept in view by the Divinity and are all reported day after day by the angels. . . .

And as to our own will, we are forbidden to do it in the Lord's presence, for Scripture tells us: "Keep your desires in check" (Matthew 6:10). And we also ask the Lord in the Our Father that His will be done in us. So we are properly taught not to do our own will, when we take heed of what Holy Scripture says. . . .

Then the disciple mounts the second rung of humility on the heavenly ladder if, not loving his own will, he does not delight in fulfilling his own desires, but by his deeds he conforms to what the Lord says: "I have come not to do my own will, but to do the will of the one who sent me." And it is likewise written: "The will gets its own punishment, but constraint provides a crown."

Then the disciple mounts the third rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, having taken nothing on himself by his own judgment, he chooses what may not be to his advantage. As Scripture says, "There are ways which men think right, but whose end plunges into the depth of hell." . . . The apostle too says: "For me there are no forbidden things," perhaps not, but not everything does good. I agree there are no forbidden things for me, but I am not going to let anything dominate me. Therefore the disciple must not only be on his guard against such things, but must submit in complete obedience to the superior, imitating the Lord, about whom the apostle says, "He became obedient unto death." So too the voice of the Lord praises the gentiles for such obedience, saying: "No sooner do they hear than they obey me." The Lord as well shows that we obey him when we are subject to the abbot, for he says to our teachers: "Anyone who listens to you listens to me, and anyone who rejects you rejects me."

Then the disciple mounts the fourth rung of humility on the heavenly ladder if, in this obedience, even though difficulties and contradictions and all kinds of wrongs are inflicted upon him, he clings in silence to the steadfastness of patience and in his endurance neither grows weary nor runs away. As Scripture says: "The man who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Psalms 44:22). . . .

Then the disciple mounts the fifth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, making humble vocal confession, he does not conceal from his abbot any evil thoughts that come into his heart or sins that he has secretly committed. Scripture exhorts us in this regard, saying: "Commit your way to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever." So also the prophet says to the Lord: "I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I did not cover. I said: 'I will confess my faults to the Lord,' and immediately you took away the guilt of my heart" (Psalm 32:5).

Then the disciple mounts the sixth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he is content with the meanest and worst of everything and considers himself a bad workman, unworthy of anything offered to him, telling himself with the prophet: "I was stupid and did not understand. I was like a brute beast in your presence. Yet I shall always be with you."

Then the disciple mounts the seventh rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he not only declares aloud that he is lower and more worthless than everyone else, but also believes this in the depths of his heart, humbling himself and saying: "But I am a worm, not a man; the scorn of men, despised by the people. I was exalted, only to be humbled and confounded" (Psalm 119:71). And a brother such as this should always say to the Lord: "It is good for me, Lord, that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments."

Then the disciple mounts the eighth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he does nothing except what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of the superiors, saying with the Scripture: "For I meditate on your law," and "When he asks his father, he will teach him and his elders will speak to him," which means the abbot by his teaching.

Then the disciple mounts the ninth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he forbids his tongue to speak and keeps silence, saying nothing until he is asked. For Scripture shows that "where words are many, sin is not wanting," and that "a man full of words will not prosper on earth."

Then the disciple mounts the tenth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he does not easily and quickly laugh, for it is written: "A fool laughs at the top of his voice," and "Like the crackling of thorns under a cauldron is the laughter of man."

Then the disciple mounts the eleventh rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if when he speaks he does it softly and without laughter, humbly, with dignity, saying few and holy words, and not in a loud voice. It is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."

Then the disciple goes up the twelfth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if his humility is no longer only in his heart but always manifest even in his body to those who see him, that is to say, at the Word of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields and any place whatever, whether he is sitting, walking or standing still, with head always bowed, his gaze fixed on the ground, at all times conscious that he is guilty because of his sins, imagining that he is already appearing at the fearful judgment. Let him constantly say to himself in his heart what the publican, standing before the temple with his eyes fixed on the ground, said: "Lord, I, a sinner, am not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven" (Psalm 38:6). And let a disciple such as this likewise tell himself with the prophet: "I am bowed down and utterly humiliated."

Therefore when the disciple completes the ascent of all these rungs of humility he will, in the fear of God, successfully scale the ladder of his life and soon come to that love of the Lord which, when perfect, casts out fear, whereby all that he previously observed not without fear, he will begin to keep without any effort, as though naturally out of habit, no longer because of fear of hell, but out of very love for this good habit and because of delight in virtue. The Lord will be pleased to make this manifest in his workman now cleansed by the Holy Spirit from vices and sins. . . . END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 131 - 139