Fra_Angelico_012

9 Feb. 10 June. 10 Oct.

The twelfth degree of humility is, that the monk, not only in his heart, but also in his very exterior, always shew his humility to all who see him: that is, in the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the field or wherever he may be, whether sitting, walking or standing, with head always bent down, and eyes fixed on the earth, that he ever think of the guilt of his sins, and imagine himself already present before the terrible judgment-seat of God: always saying in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with his eyes fixed on the earth: “Lord, I a sinner am not worthy to raise mine eyes to heaven.” And again, with the prophet: “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear: whereby he shall begin to keep, without labour, and as it were naturally and by custom, all those precepts which he had hitherto observed through fear: no longer through dread of hell, but for the love of Christ, and of a good habit and a delight in virtue which God will vouchsafe to manifest by the Holy Spirit in his labourer, now cleansed from vice and sin.

We have, at last, come to the twelfth degree of humility. All of Chapter VII is, as I said at the outset of the twelve degrees, a via crucis. The twelve degrees of humility mark a monk’s participation by patience in the sufferings of Christ. Passionibus Christi per patientiam participemur (Prologue)) When a monk reaches the twelfth degree, he ascends to the altar of the cross; he surrenders to the embrace of the Crucified; he presses his mouth against Jesus’ sacred side to drink deeply of the wells of salvation.

You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviour’ s fountains. (Isaias 12:3)

At the twelfth degree of humility, the monk, after having gone down into the valley of his own misery, lifts his eyes to behold the Face of  Love crucified. And, in doing this, he comes to believe in the love by which God first loves him.

And we have known, and have believed the charity, which God hath to us. God is charity: and he that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)

Saint Benedict would have us understand that the monk who has gone down to the twelfth degree of humility is thus configured to the crucified Jesus. He becomes a living icon of the Christ Passus, that is, of the Victim Christ in the hour of His passing over to the Father.

Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It is consummated. And bowing his head, he gave up the Spirit. (John 19:30)

When Saint Benedict enjoins his monk to go about with bowed head, he is, I think, referring to this very phrase in the Fourth Gospel. The bowed head of the crucified Jesus, and of the monk in whom the Holy Ghost reproduces the image of His death, signifies a total adhesion to the will of the Father. The great and humble Benedictine of the 17th century, Mother Mectilde de Bar, understood that the perfection of the monastic life ultimately consists in adoring God and in submission to His will. Her last words were these: J’adore et me soumets; “I adore and I submit”. In contemporary culture, the notion of submission is fraught with negative and even pathological connotations, but in the mystery of Christ and of the saints, submission is the ultimate act of surrender to the Father’s love. It is in this that a monk is configured to Jesus crucified.

Literally, the word “to submit” means to place oneself under. It is precisely this that Our Lord expresses in bowing his head: He places Himself under the will of the Father, in an act of free and loving annihilation. Sed semetipsum exinanivit; “He emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7), that is, He made himself as if He were nothing.

Therefore doth the Father love me: because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it away from me: but I lay it down of myself, and I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:17–18)

The bowed head of Jesus in the very act of passing over to the Father so captured the imagination of certain architects that they designed cruciform churches in which the sanctuary, instead of being in a straight line with the nave, veers off to the left, in symbolic portrayal of the head of Jesus inclined in death. I saw one such sanctuary several years ago while visiting Viterbo. The little 12th century church, dedicated to San Marco, had its altar situated in the “inclined head” of the cruciform plan, to signify the consummation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross when Jesus bowed His head in death. This architectural intuition is profoundly Benedictine in inspiration; it symbolizes in stone what Saint Benedict would see expressed in the living stones that are his monks.

Having arrived at the mystery of the Cross the monk finds the love of the Father. This love makes things formerly found to be arduous—if not impossible —strangely easy and wonderfully possible, even in the face of every dire prediction to the contrary. Salutary prohibitions once observed by constraint and good things once done out of fear are changed by the Holy Ghost into free expressions of the charity that wells up from deep within the soul. Where formerly there was but the cold water of a strict observance, or the lukewarm water of a not so strict one, there courses a river of new wine. It is the wine of divine love that makes all things sweet. Things once purchased dearly, and but fleetingly possessed, become gifts freely given, gifts that the opposing forces of men and demons combined cannot take away, for they have been secured by love.

So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you. And in that day you shall not ask me any thing. Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full. (John 16:22-24)