The second degree of humility is, if anyone, not wedded to his own will, finds no pleasure in the compassing of his desires; but fulfils with his practice the word of our Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Scripture also says: “Pleasure hath its penalty, but need winneth a crown.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Two things catch my attention: 1) “the word of the Lord” is fulfilled by the humble person “with his practice,” and 2) the denial of one’s own pleasures is not purely a negative act or disposition but equally (and importantly) an affirmation of the will of the Lord.
Lets begin with practice: that’s what this blog is all about, after all. Once I discovered how ascetic early Christians were, I began to see asceticism all over the Scriptures, where I had not had eyes to see it before.
One such instance was just pointed out to me by St. John Chrysostom (I was reading a homily of his). He comments on an instance where St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy and, at one point, tells him, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thy frequent infirmities” (1 Timothy 5:23).
St. John Chrysostom contends, rightly I think, that such a detail must not be as mundane as it seems on first read. While one could also explore a more mystical interpretation, his focus on practice seems fitting as well.
Doesn’t St. Timothy know that wine could help his stomach and “frequent infirmities”? It would be a bit uncharitable to presume that he did not. Why else might St. Paul say such a thing?
Chrysostom focuses on the context: “Drink no longer water….” This is an indication that St. Timothy had been strictly fasting, and thus the stomach issues and numerous infirmities were a result of his austerity. Chrysostom says,
For that he was not naturally so infirm a person, but had overthrown the strength of his stomach by fasting and water drinking; you may hear Paul himself carefully making this plain. For he does not simply say, “use a little wine;” but having said before, “drink no longer water,” he then brings forward his counsel as to the drinking of wine. And this expression “no longer” was a manifest proof, that till then he had drunk water, and on that account was become infirm.
But why would St. Timothy fast?
At the same time … that he had reached to this height of good works [as attested by St. Paul elsewhere], he did not thereby grow confident; but was full of anxiety and fear, therefore also he fasted rigidly, and was not affected as many are, who, when they have kept themselves to it but ten, or perhaps twenty months, straightway give up the matter altogether.
Chrysostom reasons that St. Timothy was dedicated to his discipline. For him, fasting was not a fad (“ten, or perhaps twenty months”) but a way of life. Having ascended the first step of the ladder of humility (“full of anxiety and fear” of God), he responded by fasting with austerity—too much austerity, since it turned out to be physically affecting him. Thus, St. Paul advises him to lighten his fast a little bit and “use a little wine.”
Notice, then, that according to Chrysostom, St. Timothy fasted out of humility, denying his will and desire for pleasure for the sake of God, and also St. Paul corrects his discipline so that he would not be overly-zealous, i.e. so that he would be humble in a different way. Just as we can romanticize food, so also we can romanticize our practice. It must, rather, be an art—something at once both natural and supernatural. We ought to stretch ourselves when we can, but we do not seek to do our bodies real harm, only rather to harm our self-will.
So we have covered the negative side, the self-denial side. But according to St. Benedict it is through this renunciation of ourselves that we fulfill “the word of the Lord.” Thus, to view fasting and all the other disciplines in a merely negative way is myopic, as I have noted in the past. All choices eliminate other options. If we would choose God’s will, we must renounce our own.
But what is God’s will? In specifics, I am hesitant to say for any person and naturally skeptical of anyone who would presume such knowledge. However, St. Benedict hints at one important, general way: “if anyone [is] not wedded to his own will”—the Latin here for “[is] not wedded to” might more accurately be translated “does not love.” I like both, actually.
Self-denial is rightly oriented toward love of God. And Christ is the Bridegroom of us all, to whom we all ought to be spiritually wed. Our desires for lower things (“pleasures”) too often can leave little room for what is higher, viz. virtue, holiness, God himself.
When we commit to a practice of self-denial—we might even say, self-humiliation—aware of our impermanence but for the grace of God, we are freed to love God as we had not formerly known how. Just as in the event of falling in love, one person sees another in a way formerly unknown (and usually comically exalted), so also our vision of God becomes a bit clearer in this second degree of humility. Through our spiritual practice, we move forward toward a place where we can say with St. Antony, whose memory we commemorate today, “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.”