Without growing in humility, any of our efforts at spiritual renewal would be hollow and fruitless. This is particularly important to us at a community right now, but it’s always important to anyone’s development: humility is inseparable from authentic charity and genuine fraternal love. They are two sides of the same coin because if I don’t exhibit true, personal humility, my love for you will be seriously flawed and impeded. We couldn’t build a community together if we lack interior humility. Love for my Creator and Savior, love for my brother/sister, love for myself–how can I love if I am only seeking to gratify myself?
What is the opposite of humility? Isn’t it pride? And how does pride manifest itself? St. Bernard has fun depicting all that with great satire in his treatise On the Steps of Pride and Humility. Vanity and self-absorption are obviously not symptoms of humility and are pretty obvious to to everyone except to the vain and self-absorbed individual himself. Intellectual pride is easily recognized in the person who always has to be right because he is not interested in helping anyone learn or improve. He’s only trying to increase the ranks of his “followers”, enhancing his own “superiority”. That’s arrogance!
A humble man may know that he’s right about something and the other person is mistaken, but he won’t feel superior. He truly wishes the good of the other or to be helpful to the other, even if that means he lets someone else provide that help because they could do it better. That’s no problem for him because he doesn’t have to shine or win the day. The other person’s improvement is the only point. Am I interested more in myself and my reputation than in the good of my brother/sister? Am I acting for my own profit or for his/her profit?
Why is the humble person selfless? Because God is the true center of any real selflessness. This is opposed to false humility in which I take pride in acting humble. And how stupid can I be? I am feeding myself on the image of myself as a humble person! That leaves no place for God or anyone else. All available “space” is filled by myself. As St. Bernard once said, “there are easier ways to go to hell.”
This is all basic stuff but growing beyond self-seeking remains tricky. This will always be a gradual process. We know that St. Paul was knocked off his high horse on the way to Damascus and it was a shattering, even isolating experience for him. But did that mean that he instantaneously became humble? Hardly! God simply took him where he was at–a Pharisee among Pharisees–and gradually worked on Paul until he faced martyrdom as a humble man. No one begins life humble except for the one conceived without sin; the rest of us begin self-absorbed, seeking my good on my terms. Just observe a baby: he or she is certainly selfless and not culpable, but he or she remains the center of their world and tries to keep everyone within earshot satellites revolving around them. We all need to grow in humility. Sirach, in the Book of Ecclesiasticus which we are reading at Vigils right now, tells us how difficult that will be. It is literally wrenching to be pulled out of myself, my self-centeredness. And it cannot happen until God becomes my center more and more. Appearances to the contrary, the Pharisee of St. Luke’s parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee praying in the Temple, went home satisfied with himself but far from justified in God’s eyes. The devastated Tax Collector left the Temple deeply dependent on God and justified.
I think we can all analyze the difference in others; I’m just blind when it comes to myself! Perhaps it’s a rule of thumb: the more righteous I feel, the more blind I am. And the pain of losing my self-centeredness is truly devastating. Ask St. Paul or St. Peter. Ask Pope Francis or Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However, the one who perseveres in this painful business can find his or her true hope. This is what St. John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul; this is what John Cassian refers to as the three renunciations (not what I renounce but what God takes from me). As the Psalmist prays: Burnt offering from me you would refuse…a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
St. Benedict writes: The fourth degree of humility is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulty and contradiction and any kind of injustice, enduring all without growing weary or running away. For Scripture says, He who perseveres to the end, it is he who shall be saved; and again, Let your heart take courage and hope in the Lord. And to show how those who are faithful should endure all things for the Lord, however contrary, the Scripture says in the person of the suffering, For your sake we are put to death all day long; we are considered as sheep marked for the slaughter. Then secure in their hope of a divine recompense, they go on with joy to declare, But in all these trials we conquer, through Him who has granted us His love. By their patience these these faithful ones fulfill the Lord’s commands in adversities and injuries; when struck on one cheek, they offer the other; when deprived of their tunic, they surrender their cloak; when forced to go a mile, they go two; with the Apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and bless those who curse them.
Doesn’t that recall the Sermon on the Mount? And remember that St. Benedict underlines that they go with joy to declare his love. The joy of the Gospel, a joy I can only know when I’ve learned humility.
from a Chapter Talk by Abbot Robert