Tag Archive: humility


The Ladder of Humility: Step 5

The fifth degree of humility is, humbly to confess to the abbot every unlawful thought as it arises in the heart, and the hidden sins we have committed. The Scripture advises this, saying: “Reveal your way to God and hope in him”: and again: “Confess to God because he is good: for his mercy endureth for over.” And in the prophet: “I have made known my sin to thee, and have not covered my iniquities. I have said, I will declare to God my own iniquities against myself: and thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart.”

~ The Rule of St. Benedict, 7

While none of us in the world have an abbot, many of us have a priest or other spiritual elder or a counselor. While I would greatly caution my readers not to make confessions to an inexperienced and untrained confessor, there is much good—and humility—that can come from regularly confessing “every unlawful thought” to a wise person who can be trusted. Continue reading

The fourth degree of humility is, when anyone, in the practice of obedience, meets with hardships, contradictions, or affronts, and yet bears them all with a quiet conscience and with patience, and continues to persevere. The Scripture says: “He who perseveres to the end, the same shall be saved,” and again: “Let your heart be strengthened, and wait for our Lord.” And to show that the faithful servant ought to suffer every trial for God, the Scripture speaks in the person of those that suffer: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

At the fourth step of St. Benedict’s ladder of humility, he offers two correctives to common spiritual images. In the first case, he rightly puts Christ’s statement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10) in the context of humility and self-denial (“in the practice of obedience”). In the second case, he references Psalm 43 (44 in most English Bibles), correcting the common, Sunday-school image of God’s people as a happy flock of sheep. Instead, he reminds us what sheep are for: “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 3

The third degree of humility is, when anyone submits himself with obedience to his superior for the sake of the love of God, after the example of the Lord, of whom the apostle says: “He was made obedient even unto death.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Today is the 221st anniversary of the public execution of King Louis XVI of France. How fitting to reflect on obedience to one’s superiors on a day when men of the modern age claimed to have none, God included. Continue reading

The second degree of humility is, if anyone, not wedded to his own will, finds no pleasure in the compassing of his desires; but fulfils with his practice the word of our Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Scripture also says: “Pleasure hath its penalty, but need winneth a crown.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced the logic of humility and then the first step—the fear of God—we now come to the second step: self-denial through spiritual practice. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 1

The first degree, then, of humility is, to have the fear of God ever before our eyes: never to forget what is his due, and always to remember his commands: to revolve in the mind how hell burns those who have contemned God, and how God has prepared eternal life for them that fear him: to preserve ourselves from the sins and vices of thought, of the tongue, the eyes, hands, feet, self-will and fleshly desires.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced St. Benedict’s ladder of humility in my previous post, we come now to this cheery beginning: “the fear of God” and “how hell burns”! I think, however, upon closer examination these will not seem so gloomy. Or, well, they will not be gloomy in the usual way, that is. Continue reading

[B]rethren, if we want to attain true humility, and come quickly to the top of that heavenly ascent to which we can only mount by lowliness in this present life, we must ascend by good works, and erect the mystical ladder of Jacob, where angels ascending and descending appeared to him. That ascent and descent means that we go downward when we exalt ourselves, and rise when we are humbled. The ladder represents our life in this world, which our Lord erects to heaven when our heart is humbled. And the sides of the ladder represent our soul and body, sides between which God has placed several rungs of humility and discipline, whereby we are to ascend if we would answer his call.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

The excerpt above begins St. Benedict of Nursia’s teaching on the ladder of humility, which consists of twelve degrees (or, we might say, steps) as well as the top of the ladder itself. In order to take each degree seriously, I intend this to be the first installment of a running series. We begin at the base of the ladder with the above introduction by St. Benedict to the logic of humility. Continue reading

Teachable Moments

An old man said: “If you fall ill, do not be a weakling. If the Lord God has willed that your body be feeble, who are you to bear it with grief? Does he not look after you in all you need? Surely you do not live without him. Be patient in your illness, and ask him to give you what is right—that is, that you may do his will, and abide in patience, and in charity eat what you have.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.45

It is easy, perhaps even justified, to dismiss a saying like this one as simply one of the less sensitive sayings of the fathers. However, I think a more charitable reading can be quite fruitful. The monk who said this wants those who ponder it to question their perspective on life, particularly suffering. Too often people presume that all suffering is a bad thing. This old man reminds us that even those who suffer have much to be thankful for, that all things happen in accord with God’s will, and that every moment of our lives is thus a teachable moment. Continue reading

Humility: The Gateway Virtue

Abba John the Short said: “The gateway to God is humility. Our fathers endured much suffering and so entered the city of God with joy.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.22

Humility is often praised (perhaps paradoxically) in the most exalted ways by ancient Christians. But rightly so! I’ve heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” I’m not sure whether that is true, but humility, I know, is a “gateway to God.” It is a gateway virtue. I can see the public service announcement now: “Parents, have you talked to your children about humility?” If only, right? Humility, indeed, is so powerful in its apparent weakness that it can even turn suffering into great joy.

I am reminded of a saying of St. Anthony: “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over the world, and I said groaning, ‘What can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humiity.'” Continue reading

Fool! Heretic!

Once a provincial judge heard of Abba Moses and went to Scete to see him. They told the old man that he was on his way, and he rose up to flee into the marsh. The judge and his train met him, and asked: “Tell me, old man, where is the cell of Abba Moses?” And the old man said: “Why do you want to see him? He is a fool and a heretic.”

The judge came to the church, and said to the clergy: “I heard of Abba Moses and came to see him. But an old man on his way to Egypt met me, and I asked him where was the cell of Abba Moses. And he said: ‘Why are you looking for him? He is a fool and a heretic.'” And the clergy were distressed and said: “What sort of person was your old man who told you this about the holy man?” And they said: “He was an old man, tall and dark, wearing the oldest possible clothes.” And the clergy said: “That was Abba Moses. And he told you this about himself because he did not want you to see him.” And the judge went away much edified.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 8.10

In the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Western tradition), there is an ascetic tradition of the “holy fool” or “fool for Christ’s sake.” The basic concept is that, as a matter of ascetic calling, one may accept an extreme discipline: pretending madness in order to incite scorn and so avoid the praises of others. The goal is the most pure humility, but the practice can look sort of odd. Abba Moses was not, strictly speaking, a holy fool, but he does at times (as in this story) display a little of what that looks like. Indeed, he shows that sometimes what is foolish to the world may actually be a manifestation of true wisdom. Continue reading

To Love Much

The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Your Divinity, O Lord, assumes the role of a myrrh-bearer; and lamenting, she brings the myrrh before your burial. “Woe to me!” she said; “For me, night is an ecstacy of excess, dark and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, You, Who gathers into clouds the water of the sea. Incline the groanings of my heart, You, Who in Your ineffable condescension, bowed down the Heavens.

“I will embrace and kiss Your sacred Feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head. Your Feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear, when she heard Your footsteps while You were walking in Paradise in the twilight. O my Saviour and soul-Saver! Who can ever track down the multitude of my sins, and the depths of Your judgment? Do not disregard me Your servant, You, Whose mercy is boundless.”

~ Hymn of Kassiani, from the Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins

The hymn above is one of the finest in the Byzantine tradition. It is written by the nun Kassiani, a saint of the ninth century. On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the woman from the Gospel who comes to Christ and weeps at his feet. This hymn midrashicly takes up the woman’s perspective in a beautiful display of repentance. Continue reading