After he has climbed all these degrees of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the top, the charity that is perfect and casts out all fear. And then, the virtues which first he practised with anxiety, shall begin to be easy for him, almost natural, being grown habitual. He will no more be afraid of hell, but will advance by the love of Christ, by good habits, and by taking pleasure in goodness. Our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, will deign to show this in the servant who has been cleansed from sin.
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Here we see the end for which humility strives, what makes it all worthwhile: charity, the highest form of love. St. Benedict here demonstrates how fully humility encapsulates so many themes of the fathers, reminding us that true love is hard work but well worth the effort.
After he has climbed all these degrees of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the top, the charity that is perfect and casts out all fear.
St. Benedict here echoes my favorite saying of St. Antony, which I have referenced several times before: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.” Humility is how St. Antony reached this height. Indeed, in another story St. Antony has a vision of all the snares of the evil one spread out across the earth, and he says, “What can pass through these?” And he hears a voice say to him, “Humility.”
In addition, as we have seen humility takes great discipline. And St. Moses the Ethiopian teaches that the disciplines “are to be rungs of a ladder up which [the heart] may climb to perfect charity.” It is through the disciplines that we cultivate the humility and purity of heart by which we attain that true charity in which our hearts find God.
And then, the virtues which first he practised with anxiety, shall begin to be easy for him, almost natural, being grown habitual.
We are creatures of habit, as the saying goes. While one might take that saying too far, it is generally true. This, certainly, is the assumption of asceticism—if we wish to be better people we must endeavor to develop better habits. With persistence, what began as a struggle becomes a sort of “second nature”—nature in the sense of character, yes, but also in the sense of essence as well. For, as St. Irenaeus put it, the Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons (and daughters) of men might become sons of God. As St. Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
He will no more be afraid of hell, but will advance by the love of Christ, by good habits, and by taking pleasure in goodness.
Here we see the first and last level of a three-part progression found in the works of St. Basil the Great, St. John Cassian’s Conferences, and St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent: the slave, the steward, and the son. The slave acts out of fear of punishment. The steward, out of hope for reward. The son (or daughter), out of love for the Father.
Interestingly, it is humility that brings about this disposition. That is, it is precisely thinking oneself, like the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:11-32), to be unworthy to be even a steward in our Father’s house that brings us to his loving embrace, through which he clothes us in his own robes, puts a ring on our finger, and celebrates the resurrection of his child. Through his great and merciful love that expectantly and persistently watches for us while we are still a long way off, the lowliness that we embrace proves to be the means of our exaltation. The way up is down.
Our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, will deign to show this in the servant who has been cleansed from sin.
St. Athanasius, at the end of his Life of St. Antony, records that people from all over the world had heard of Antony by the end of his life, despite the fact that he actively fled the company of others, living first in a cemetery, then an abandoned fortress, and finally at the top of a mountain. He writes,
That this was something given by God no one would deny. For how is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting in a mountain, in Spain and Gaul, and in Rome and Africa, unless if it was the God who everywhere makes his men known who also promised this to Antony in the beginning? For even though they themselves act in secret, and may want to be forgotten, nevertheless the Lord shows them like lamps to everyone, so that those who hear may know that the commandments have power for amendment of life, and may gain zeal for the way of virtue.
Just like the logic of humility itself, there is something counter-intuitive and paradoxical about this. Those who truly embrace humility and self-abasement, who scorn praise and embrace criticism, who flee popularity and seek obscurity—such people, if their lives are truly blameless, attract the interest and attention of all.
Such people are so exceptionally healthy, not to mention holy, that the life they live takes on a contagious quality. People travel for miles and miles to see them, even just to hear one word of advice or receive a blessing or a prayer. These people still exist today, though perhaps we do not always realize it. Yet there are people who through their sheer goodness and love attract the attention and love of others, even as they deny their own greatness. The key is to embrace that humility by which the humbled are exalted, the weak are shown to be strong, the foolish to be wise, the despised to be honorable.
We do not become “the servant who has been cleansed from sin” by fleeing sin alone, but by embracing humility and through the grace of God and, moreover, by striving for charity.
This, then, is the top of the ladder: love. More than a mere feeling that passes, it is participation in the life of God, who “is love” and peace and stability, and who “emptied himself” that we might be filled with his glory.