THE TWELVE STAGES OF HUMILITY
St. Thomas teaches us that the foundation for humility is reverence towards God. It is for this reason that St. Augustine connects humility with the gift of fear of the Lord, by which man honors God. Humility makes us submit to God. It is, therefore, radically opposite from Liberalism, which is none other than pride erected into a system. A liberal wants to be free from all submission, as if submission to God was a bad thing, while in truth it is not just the only attitude befitting for his creatures, but also the only means of happiness, since we can only be happy if we reach the only end for which we were created which is God Himself.
But let’s see what St. Benedict, less speculative than St. Thomas and St. Augustine, but highly practical in applying the same principles stated by these holy Doctors of the Church, has to say.
St. Benedict’s purpose is to educate monks, adults or children, who appear at the monastery gates. How does he go about it? He repeats to them the words from the Gospel: “He who humbles himself shall be exalted and he who exalts himself shall be humbled.” (Luke, 14:11), and he precedes this citation with these words: “The Sacred Scripture, my brothers, makes us hear this cry:”. St. Benedict desires, by this means, to attract us entirely to this decisive point for all education. It is necessary to become small if we want God to take care of us and make us great by taking part in His divine nature. This is the Benedictine teaching: the apprenticeship of holiness.
St. Benedict mentions twelve stages by which to arrive at perfection through humility as well as charity, since, to be exalted, in Scripture, means nothing other than to be sanctified in this life and glorified in the next, and this is accomplished essentially by charity.
St. Benedict starts from the interior and ends with the monk’s external posture.
St. Francis de Sales agrees completely with St. Benedict’s method. This is what he says: “I could never approve a method which, to change mankind, started from the outside, with his manners, his habits, and his hair. It seems to me, on the contrary, that it is necessary to start from the inside, because, one who has Jesus Christ in his heart, soon has Him in all his external actions.”
Thus, we are sufficiently informed about humility and about the educational methods of St. Benedict in order to start our study of the twelve stages proposed by the patriarch of western monks.
A last word, this time from St. Bernard, to place us even more so on the right path. The holy abbot of Clairveaux defines humility as the virtue which makes us disregard ourselves as the consequence of a very true knowledge of ourselves. St. Teresa of Avila says that humility is the truth.
Therefore, let us begin our study. Here is the summary of the chapter on humility written by Father Emmanuel of Mesnil de St. Loup:
1. Always have before your eyes the fear of God and, consequently, keep from all sin and especially guard yourself against self-will;
2. Renounce your own desires, as a result of the renunciation of self-will;
3. Submit yourself with complete obedience to your superior, for love of God;
4. Accept peacefully difficult orders, even bad treatment and insults;
5. Tell your superior your thoughts, even the bad ones, which enter your spirit;
6. Content yourself with that which is most vile and abject;
7. Consider yourself, from the bottom of your heart, the last person of all;
8. Follow with simplicity the common rule, avoiding all singularity;
9. Keep silent until interrogated;
10. Don’t laugh too much;
11. Speak calmly and seriously, with few and reasonable words;
12. Carry humility within your heart and also on the entire exterior, lowering your eyes like a criminal who considers himself as if he were about to be called to the terrible judgment of God.
That’s the summary given by Fr. Emmanuel. Every summary takes a little bit away from the author’s thought, but a summary has the advantage of putting before our eyes an overall sight of the subject. We see here that St. Benedict starts from the inside and ends with the external posture. He starts with God’s presence and ends with the same presence. Initially, the effect of this presence in the interior of the soul is fear. Fear can be either servile or filial. Both cause man to submit to God, but only the second one enters with him into Heaven. At the end this holy Patriarch adds that also the body should be full of this same fear, which is reverence towards God.
The picture would not be complete if St. Benedict had forgotten to mention explicitly charity, which follows, step by step, all the stages to humility or, at least, unites one to the monk at a given moment of this climb. It is humility which animates the monk, and every Christian, in the ascent to the all-good God. Listen to St. Benedict speak of this charity, when the monk reaches the last of the twelve stages of humility:
“The monk, having reached all these degrees of humility, will soon reach this godly charity, which being the most perfect, casts away the fear and causes all that which he used to observe before with a sentiment of terror, to now start to be fulfilled without any difficulty, as though naturally and through an acquired habit; no longer for fear of Hell, but out of love of Christ, out of a good custom and the attraction proper to the virtues which the Lord deigns to make grow in His servant purified of his vices and sins.”
Liberalism does not know fear, but it also doesn’t know charity. Liberalism eliminates fear, but it also eliminates charity. Liberalism attracts, since it also seems to have arrived at the top of the stairs, when the truth is that it hasn’t even placed its feet at the first step. Catholicism, on the contrary, knows how to wear the unpleasant face of true goodness, according to the expression of an illustrious writer. Unpleasant towards sin, but with a smile towards virtue, only Catholicism knows how unite severity and goodness, humility and magnanimity, to reach this charity which eliminates servile fear, in order to leave room only for this reverent fear, full of holy intimacy between the soul and its Creator and Savior.
In the next bulletin, if God gives us the grace, we will return to each stage, either one at a time, or a few, to understand in depth St. Benedict’s thoughts, he who formed thousands of Saints, monks and lay people, and molded Catholic Europe, a light for the whole world.
To give a foretaste of that which illustrious commentators write about each step of humility, let us listen to Dom Etienne Salasc, a Cistercian monk, comment on the eleventh step:
“It behooves the monk, who entered ostensibly Christ’s militia, to imitate Jesus Christ by his language filled with meekness and with an absence of unsuitable laughter, always humble and serious, sober, reasonable, never noisy, unceasingly seasoned with the salt of wisdom. With these perfect and attractive forms of correction placed before him, the desire to imitate imposes itself upon him with a charm in proportion to as much as he recognizes these good effects of humility as the characteristics of a perfect courtesy and a complete education. It happens thus with humility as with true piety: it is useful for all things, bringing with itself promises inseparable from the present life and for the future life. A true Christian is inferior in nothing to a gentleman.”
And on the tenth stage, which might give the appearance of excluding any type of happiness in the cloister, here is the wise comment by the same author:
“Laughter is a necessity of nature which depends much on the diversity of temperaments more or less sensitive to the causes which stimulate it. It would be absurd to want to ban it radically. This is not the condition imposed for humility, and this was not our Father St. Benedict’s way of thinking. More than that: laughter is sometimes a necessary means to release tension.”
Truly, St. Benedict’s aim with the tenth stage of humility is that the monk (and this goes for all Christians) may know how to exclude all vulgarities incompatible with the “inexpressible seriousness of the Christian life,” as Bossuet says.
We recommend to all who wish to study in depth these lessons on humility, the excellent book by Rev. Fr. G. A. Simon “Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict for Oblates and Friends of the Monasteries,” published in French in the 1930’s and re-published in 1982 by Fontenelle Publications. Unfortunately this book was never translated into English to my knowledge.
Fr. Simon comments eruditely and with great sense on the entire Rule. He makes one better understand it in order to better live it. May all find in this Rule, which is, according to Bossuet, “a condensation of Christianity, a wise and mysterious summary of the doctrine of the Gospel”, may all find a precious help to restore all things in Christ, as was St. Pius X’s desire.
Br. Thomas Aquinas OSB