The seventh degree of humility is, when one does not merely call oneself the least and most abject of all mankind, but believes it, with sincerity of heart: humbling oneself and saying with the prophet: “I am a worm and no man: a scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.” “I have been exalted, humbled, and confounded.” And again: “It is good for me that thou hast humbled me, that I may learn to keep thy commandments.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
After the last step, I thought I had passed by the most difficult to explain, but this one is probably harder. How can a person honestly believe themselves to be “the least and most abject of all mankind”?
Some clarification may be in order. While it may certainly help one to sincerely believe that he/she is “the least and most abject of all mankind,” this is not the same as the “faithful saying” of St. Paul: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1 Timothy 1:15). I have reflected on what this means, to some extent, here and here and will not revisit it now.
No, this step follows from the previous one: to be content in all things, considering oneself to be inadequate (apart from God’s grace).
Rather than focusing outward, this focuses more inward. It is a state of lowliness. It is to embrace the Beatitude of Christ: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Nevertheless, I still don’t think we’ve made this any easier yet. Isn’t it unhealthy to have such a low view of oneself?
It would be, if not in this particular ascetic and spiritual context. One embraces and believes it because of one’s relationship to God and to others in God.
It is actually, I think, quite simple in the end. On the one hand we are told to love the Lord our God first, and love our neighbor as ourselves second. As St. Augustine points out, these two commandments actually involve three objects of our love: God, others, and ourselves. And he, at least, insists that this order is very important.
While I am sometimes skeptical that love can be ranked and quantified in any way that would make St. Augustine’s scheme coherent, the basic idea is not bad. And it helps us understand how one can consider oneself the most abject of all humankind without also sinking into self-pity and despair.
The key is that one believes oneself to be most abject by comparison to God and others.
This brings me to the other hand. On the other hand, there is an epistemological problem in considering oneself better than others. We only know our own hearts, and thus we only have true, full (to the extent to which we know ourselves), insider knowledge of our own lowliness, sin, and inadequacy.
Thus, we must face the reality that, if we look at ourselves honestly, we do not actually know anyone more abject than ourselves. Again, by comparison, we ought all to say with the psalmist, as St. Benedict recommends, “I am a worm and no man: a scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.”
Adopting, and truly believing, such a perspective is actually quite freeing. Gone is the possibility of deriving our self-worth from a sense of being better than others. And thus, gone is the anxiety that comes with such a dangerous passion.
Paradoxically perhaps, considering oneself “a worm” frees one to actually consider oneself at all. We do not look around at how others can be better, but see ourselves frankly, with all of our faults, and yet, in so doing, press on another step up the ladder. For the way up is down.
This is the seventh step: meekness. And it comes with a blessing—the meek “shall inherit the earth.”