The first degree, then, of humility is, to have the fear of God ever before our eyes: never to forget what is his due, and always to remember his commands: to revolve in the mind how hell burns those who have contemned God, and how God has prepared eternal life for them that fear him: to preserve ourselves from the sins and vices of thought, of the tongue, the eyes, hands, feet, self-will and fleshly desires.
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Having introduced St. Benedict’s ladder of humility in my previous post, we come now to this cheery beginning: “the fear of God” and “how hell burns”! I think, however, upon closer examination these will not seem so gloomy. Or, well, they will not be gloomy in the usual way, that is.
Lets begin with the fear of God. According to Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7).
So the fear of God is about knowledge, wisdom, and instruction. Things are cheerier already! Speaking of knowledge, what is there about God to fear?
From a philosophical point of view, God is the immaterial grounding of all material existence. The creation has its beginning and continuation in God’s power. As the created world had a beginning and is always in flux, there must be some source of stability behind it all. We might call to mind the words of the Apostle Peter that it is “the word [Logos] of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23). He then quotes the prophet Isaiah:
All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
But the word of the Lord endures forever. (1:24-25; cf. Isaiah 40:6-8)
There is nothing wrong with or unbiblical about the philosophical view, but yet, what is there to fear in it?
Well, St. Peter hints at it in quoting Isaiah: In the presence of the divine, we see clearly our own impermanence. Though our hearts yearn for eternity, we whither and die like grass. What this evokes is a specific kind of fear: reverence and awe. If we have any hope for incorruption, we must be firmly anchored in the Logos that “abides forever.”
Thus, to fear God is to abide in his presence, ever aware of one’s own feebleness and fragility, humbled by God’s greatness. From this perspective flows all knowledge worthy of the name. All wisdom and instruction find their grounding in this first degree of humility.
St. Benedict will not leave it at that, though. He goes on, saying it is “never to forget what is his due, and always to remember his commands: to revolve in the mind how hell burns those who have contemned God, and how God has prepared eternal life for them that fear him.” And now we’re back to gloomy.
Lets focus on the gloomiest part then: “to revolve in the mind how hell burns those who have contemned God.”
First of all, notice that God is not the one doing the condemning here. Rather, it is those who “hell burns.”
Second, we must ask: what is hell? While images of fire are often used, I think it a misreading of ancient texts to take these images literally. For example, St. Paul writes that those who are in love and struggle with self-control ought to marry because, “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9). In many translations the words “with passion” are added after “burn.” No doubt this is what St. Paul is getting at, but I find his omission interesting. He uses the Greek word for passion seven times in his letters, but not here. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional.
That is, to burn with passion—and now I use passion in the broad sense of a bad emotional habit—is to experience, to some extent, the fire of hell. Our passions are their own punishment. Thus, what is the hell that burns those “who have contemned God”? I cannot say for sure, of course, but we may understand their own condemnation of God to be the fire of hell to them. Indeed, what could be more painful than to actively reject the fulness of self-emptying love? For it is in this sense that St. John writes, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). All true, pure love is communion with the gracious action of God. The consequences of rejecting this are truly something to be feared. Indeed, if people fear physical fire, how much more so ought they to fear such a conflagration of the soul!
Well, we’re not quite cheery yet, but gloomy in a different way. A good gloominess, however, because one cannot know the cause of this burning without also knowing the cause of the eternal life that God “has prepared … for them that fear him”: communion with his grace and love.
In this light, St. Benedict calls us to render to God what is his due by doing his commandments. What is God’s due? Jesus answers this question with a wonderful illustration when some attempted to trap him in his words. They asked,
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money.”
So they brought him a denarius.
And he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
They said to him, “Caesar’s.”
And he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left him and went their way. (Matthew 22:17-22)
“Whose image and inscription is this?” Chirst asks. What he does not say, but clearly implies by the way his questioners marveled, is another question: “Whose image and inscription is on you?” The answer, of course, is God’s.
“God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness'” (Genesis 1:26). We are made after his image and likeness, meant to be mirrors reflecting the divine light. We are inscribed with the Word (the Logos) that “lives and abides forever.” Give Caesar his little coin. Give God your whole self.
So there’s our answer: God’s due is all that we are. That’s terrifying to me and certainly humbling. On the other hand, it is also hopeful: God does not ask us to do the impossible but promises to empower us, through the very grace we encounter through this awe and reverence of him, to be perfect as he is perfect, holy as he is holy, incorruptible as he is incorruptible.
Fear him and discover hope. Humble yourself and experience true exaltation. This is the first step of the ladder of humility.