The fourth degree of humility is, when anyone, in the practice of obedience, meets with hardships, contradictions, or affronts, and yet bears them all with a quiet conscience and with patience, and continues to persevere. The Scripture says: “He who perseveres to the end, the same shall be saved,” and again: “Let your heart be strengthened, and wait for our Lord.” And to show that the faithful servant ought to suffer every trial for God, the Scripture speaks in the person of those that suffer: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
At the fourth step of St. Benedict’s ladder of humility, he offers two correctives to common spiritual images. In the first case, he rightly puts Christ’s statement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10) in the context of humility and self-denial (“in the practice of obedience”). In the second case, he references Psalm 43 (44 in most English Bibles), correcting the common, Sunday-school image of God’s people as a happy flock of sheep. Instead, he reminds us what sheep are for: “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.“
In the first instance, I think St. Benedict offers a too-often neglected perspective. First of all, he links persevering through trials with the self-denial of obedience, the previous step on the ladder. Secondly, he speaks of persecution in the context of humility.
There are some today who seem to be looking for persecution in whatever righteous cause they may take up. Certainly, many people are truly persecuted for righteousness every day, but I’m not so sure that looking for it and then complaining (even boasting?) about it really fits with the logic of humility. As the righteous person is surely also a humble person, I find it unlikely that the beatitude proclaimed by Christ applies to these sorts of people.
St. Benedict puts the perseverance he has in mind in the context of self-denial with his reference to “the practice of obedience.” The blessed are those who, when persecuted though they do what is right, keep their silence, denying their desire for justice “with a quiet conscience and with patience.”
Certainly seeking justice for the oppressed (even when we are the oppressed) is noble and righteous—“the practice of obedience” to God sometimes requires it even. But we need to be discerning when the time is right to speak out and when to stay silent. Not all injustice is healthy to fight against, nor is everyone in the right spiritual state to fight those battles truly worth the effort.
In any case, the blessed keep injustices endured in “the practice of obedience” a private matter, seeking no restitution or even recognition for the humiliation they have suffered.
Which leads me to my second point: they seek no recognition or restitution, that is, other than that of God. Earlier, the psalmist even seems to indict God for the people’s suffering:
In God we boast all day long,
And praise Your name forever.
But You have cast us off and put us to shame,
And You do not go out with our armies.
You make us turn back from the enemy,
And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves.
You have given us up like sheep intended for food,
And have scattered us among the nations.
You sell Your people for next to nothing,
And are not enriched by selling them.
Strong words! He even accuses God of being a foolish businessman at the end. Yet the context of these words shows something deeper: the psalmist has a conviction that but for God’s grace, no victory can be won.
Furthermore, he utters this lament in the confidence that God too can take criticism “for righteousness’ sake.” As I highlighted in my introduction to this series, the Christian model of humility is the divine humility supremely displayed in the incarnation of the Son of God. So the source of the psalmist’s boldness is his faith in the grace and humility of God.
In this context, he laments that God’s people “are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet this image occurs in many positive forms, e.g., “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 22 ) and “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
These latter images are truly sources of comfort. Jesus continues in the Gospel of John to say, “The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.”
Yet implicit in the image of a shepherd with his sheep is the fact that, indeed, sheep are kept to be sheared, and many also “for the slaughter.” Those of us who follow the Lamb of God, who himself did not protest when he was reviled and submitted to be slaughtered for our sakes, ought to expect the same end of the same road.
Thus the way of life leads to staring down death, in all its forms, and overcoming fear, in and for humility, bearing all that may come.
Death to reputation! Death to praise! Death to recognition! Death to comfort! Death to fear! And, for that matter, death to death itself!
Down is the way up, death to ourselves the way of life. And if in the midst of trial we find it difficult to persevere, if the weight of injustice offends us (as it should), we can have confidence that the Lord has “saved us from our enemies”—our passions—through the very trials we lament. Remembering in this way who—or rather what—our real enemy is, we remember as well who our Good Shepherd is, who listens to those who listen to his voice, who fights the battle of righteousness with us with his grace, and who “gives his life for the sheep.”
This is the fourth step, and as essential as any other, for “he who perseveres to the end, the same shall be saved.”