The twelfth degree of humility is, when the monk’s inward humility appears outwardly in his comportment. And wherever he be, in the divine office, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on a journey, in the fields wherever he is sitting, walking or standing, he is to look down with bowed head conscious of his guilt, imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement: repeating in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with eyes downcast: “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven”; and with the prophet “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Is there a way to separate humility from low self-esteem? On the one hand, the fathers are not a fan of self-esteem in the first place. Evagrios even refers to it as a demon. So perhaps not. And perhaps we are overly positive about the idea in our time in the first place. On the other hand, if low self-esteem means a defeatist mentality, the answer is definitely yes: they can be separated and are, in fact, distinct.

The key to understanding this final step of the ladder is where we began: the logic of humility. The way up is down. This outward expression of an inner embrace of a lowly spirit reflects not self-contempt but real faith and hope. Not only must one must believe in the value of humility, one must have faith that one does not labor alone, but with God, the foundation of our hope.

Humility follows directly from the admission of one’s own shortcomings and sins and the need for divine grace. We are able to freely do and be good, but we also tend toward temptation. Whatever the cause, this reality is hard to deny: the world is out-of-balance, and the problem is human sin.

Dogs know how to be dogs. Cats know how to be cats. In fact, they can’t help but act in accordance with their natures. Human beings, on the other hand, are by nature good. St. Maximos the Confessor teaches that the virtues are natural, and St. John of Damascus writes that “evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an accident, that is, a voluntary deviation from what is natural into what is unnatural, which is sin.”

Sin, contrary to common custom of speech in some Christian circles, is not natural, nor do human beings have a “sinful nature.” Rather, they have a damaged, but good, nature. We malfunction, except that we are not machines; we choose to malfunction. And try as we might, we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves. We need grace.

In fact, even if we did not malfunction, we would need grace. We need grace because we are made for grace. We are meant for communion with God, and the relationship is not one-way. The centrality of Jesus Christ in Christianity even emphasizes that God starts the conversation: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice/seat of mercy [ilasmos] for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Thus, at the twelfth step of humility, the humble person is constantly “imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement.” For the Christian, this is not simply to dwell on one’s sin, but on the grace we’ve been given. A Christian cannot think of divine judgment apart from divine grace. And thus we ought not to judge others, knowing our own sin the best and knowing the infinite depth of God’s grace in light of it.

Thus, as is fitting for this beginning week of Great Lent, the humble person prays with the publican (tax collector), “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven.” Tax collectors were social outcasts in ancient Palestine. If anyone was to be judged a sinner by others, and ostricized as a result, tax collectors were right up there with prostitutes and drunkards.

There was good reason for this: tax collectors were government middlemen. To simplify: the Romans wanted X amount, and the tax collectors were supposed to collected it. If tax collectors wanted to make a decent living, however, it required overcharging taxpayers in order to shave off an extra amount for themselves.

Add to this the fact that the Romans were occupying Israel and the Jewish people greatly resented this in the first place, and any one of them who worked as a tax collector was viewed as a de facto traitor to one’s own people.

So that is the sort of person that we are to emulate. Not in sin, but in solidarity with their low estate and, moreover, the repentance of the publican in Jesus’ parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)

The Pharisee, on the other hand, was the religious and national hero. Through faithfully keeping Torah, he hoped to usher in the Messianic age, when the promised savior would come, expel the evil Romans, and establish an independent state for God’s people once again. And he would have accomplished it long ago—so he believed—if not for all those “other men,” those sinners like the tax collector.

Jesus tells us that, rather, it is the person who sees his/her own weakness and asks for divine mercy who will be justified. It seems easy to blame others, but if our goal is the salvation of our souls and the joy that that entails—not simply in the future but now as well, so much as we foretaste that blessedness. The way up, rather, is down. And what feels more difficult turns out to be so much easier.

Self-condemnation, then, rightly understood, is simply a realism about one’s own inadequacy and faith and hope in God’s grace.

And it is truly easier: what anxiety comes from comparing oneself to others! How difficult a life that is, to always be looking to others and placing the value of oneself in the one’s low estimation of them. It is two sins and doubly harmful to oneself, a contradiction of one’s own nature, an embrace of what “is not any essence nor a property of essence,” existential emptiness, pure unsubstantial negation.

This, on the other hand, is the twelfth step: a full embodiment of humility through a full embrace of reality. For if Jesus Christ reveals the character of divinity in emptying himself (see Philippians 2), then our self-emptying is to be filled with divinity, the perfection of our true selves, our true nature which God created good.