The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk does nothing but what is countenanced by the constitutions of the monastery, or the example of the elders.
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Once again, this step of the ladder needs a bit of translation for it to fit the context of those, like myself, who are not monks and live “in the world.” Regular, non-monastic folks do not have any “constitutions of the monastery.” Regular people, nevertheless, can still learn from this portion of St. Benedict’s regula.
Orthodox Christians like myself generally have a set of prayers (usually mostly the same as everyone else) that we pray every morning and evening.
We also have set habits of fasting. Technically (for it is difficult to keep and some are better at it than others), we fast every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during Advent and Lent and a few other times of the year. If we can and as occasions allow, we fast from meat, dairy, eggs, and alcohol during these times.
Traditionally, we also give alms for the poor, even more so during fasting periods.
We also have customs, sometimes unspoken mores, about how to behave during liturgy and when to do our cross and so on.
One way of understanding all of these things is to ask what a constitution really is. For example, the British constitution is unwritten, or not simply a single document like the United States, at least. This is because constitutions are not documents. (This is true even for countries with a single constitutional document). Rather, a thing’s constitution is how it is rightly composed.
There is an ancient saying, lex orandi lex credendi, “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” The composition of our faith comes out of our practice of prayer, understood broadly as our whole spiritual practice, sacramental, liturgical, ascetic, and otherwise, for none of these are practiced apart from prayer.
Thus, all of us have a constitution to follow: broadly conceived, all Christians have and ought to follow a rule of prayer. And from this rule comes our spiritual health. Indeed, even our Creed and canon of Scriptures grew out of the lex orandi.
Given the primacy of this ancient rule of prayer, among other reasons, I gravitated toward the Orthodox Church, which takes such care to preserve what has been passed down to it. As St. Basil warned,
For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.
Surely, not everyone is at the point in their spiritual life where they would join the Orthodox Church, but that does not mean that one cannot adopt more ancient constitutions of prayer. Doing so is a means of humility because it requires obedience to one’s spiritual forefathers, our elders of ages past. Furthermore, many of the prayers and practices themselves cultivate humility, as St. Benedict highlighted on the second step of his ladder.
In the present, hopefully everyone has spiritual elders, even if not in any official capacity, that they can imitate. If not (and even if so), one can always consult the lives of the saints, as hagiography is written for the sake of imitation.
Certainly, this is not easy, even with the lighter standards of the world. But it is certainly rewarding. To ask, “Why follow all these customs and practices?” spiritually speaking, is similar to saying, “Why should I eat well or exercise or see a healthcare provider from time to time?” The answer is the same: to be healthy!
So this is the eighth step: the rule of prayer. Far from disposable, the Gospel itself depends on it. And thus, for that matter, so also does the health of our souls.