The sixth degree of humility is, if a monk be content with anything though never so vile and contemptible; and to think himself inadequate, and unworthy to succeed in whatever he is commanded to do; saying with the prophet: “I was brought to nothing and knew nothing. I am become like a brute beast before thee, yet I am always with thee.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
“Glory to God for all things!” These are the famous last words of St. John Chrysostom, whose memory, along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, we Orthodox celebrate today. This “sixth degree of humility” of St. Benedict’s ladder has the same spirit behind it. It is a difficult saying and a difficult step to embrace, but like all steps along the way of life, once traveled it seems much easier in hindsight.
How is one to “be content” with what is “vile and contemptible”? Shouldn’t we be outraged? Shouldn’t we, at least, revile and condemn? Not if humility is our desire.
We may also ask, isn’t St. Benedict encouraging low self-esteem? On the one hand, he is. Self-esteem was not considered a good thing by ancient Christians. On the other hand, he is not encouraging defeatism. To think oneself to be “inadequate” and “unworthy to succeed” ought to be understood as acknowledging one’s need for God (because we are inadequate without him) and giving him credit for giving us success. “Unworthy” does not mean “unable.” It just means that, by ourselves, we don’t have what it takes.
Now, I can imagine someone, such as Feuerbach, objecting that it is unfair to attribute all our failures to ourselves but none of our successes. Why does God get all the credit for the good stuff we do but we only get credit for the bad stuff?
First of all, I think such an objection is based upon a misreading of the idea in question. The goal is humility. And the logic of humility is that the way up is down. Declaring, “I am the first of sinners,” is a way of keeping one’s ego in check.
Secondly, to give God credit for his grace does not mean that the good we do is in no way the result of our effort. Rather it is the synergy of our effort with divine action. Take away either and the good deed will not be accomplished.
Thus, the point is not that we never succeed. It is that we never succeed apart from God. That is only an unfair statement if it is untrue, which it isn’t. Indeed, the many hymns of the Church praising the saints show that Christianity has historically given plenty of credit to human effort. What is important, however, is that the saints would likely give no credit to themselves.
That said, we still have our initial problem: how is one to “be content with anything”? Precisely, I would argue, in the desire for humility and in the hope of God’s grace.
If our goal is to lower ourselves, than anything in life, “though never so vile and contemptible,” can be put to that use. In seeking to be and view ourselves as lowly, we have greater opportunity to take joy in all the good, no matter how small, that we receive in life. And out of that joy we are able to live a life of thanksgiving, a eucharistic life.
If we let our ego run wild, if we seek out all the things for which we deserve credit, it becomes all the harder to see the good that we are given. Humility, then, is necessary for knowledge of God’s grace.
And at the end of the day, even our efforts require first God’s gracious act of creation. We are dust, so the Scriptures teach, and dust was created from nothing at all. “I was brought to nothing and knew nothing,” says the prophet in the Psalms. “I am become like a brute beast before thee.” But he does not stop there: “yet I am always with thee.”
If apart from God we are dust, and less than dust, what reason do we have to boast in ourselves? Thomas Merton, I believe, once described the human person like an onion. We peel away layer after layer only to discover nothing at the center. Nothing, I would say, apart from God.
Knowing this, we never need to doubt God’s presence. We are like flickering little flames; he is the fuel without which we could not burn. And yet, realizing this, our need for this “fuel,” how quickly can we seize upon it! How brightly can we shine!
This is the sixth step: all-embracing contentment, contentment that we do not labor alone but with the help of God, who gives to us the victory.