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The seventh degree of humility is, that he should not only call himself with his tongue lower and viler than all, but also believe himself in his inmost heart to be so, humbling himself, and saying with the prophet: “I am a worm and no man, the shame of men and the outcast of the people” (Psalm 21:7). “I have been exalted, and cast down, and confounded” (Psalm 87:16). And again: “It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I may learn Thy commandments” (Psalm 118:71).
The seventh degree of humility is indispensable to one who, according to Saint John Cassian, has set his sights on the immediate goal of the monastic life, that is purity of heart. “Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). For this a man willingly suffers all the losses inherent to the monastic way and embraces all its rigors and hardships. Saint John Cassian writes:
Our profession too has its own goal and end, for which we undergo all sorts of toils not merely without weariness but actually with delight; on account of which the want of food in fasting is no trial to us, the weariness of our vigils becomes a delight; reading and constant meditation on the Scriptures does not pall upon us; and further incessant toil, and self-denial, and the privation of all things, and the horrors also of this vast desert have no terrors for us. And doubtless for this it was that you yourselves despised the love of kinsfolk, and scorned your fatherland, and the delights of this world, and passed through so many countries, in order that you might come to us, plain and simple folk as we are, living in this wretched state in the desert. (Conference I, Chapter 2)
What could possibly sully the heart of a man who has left all things to follow Christ as a monk? First, a man’s heart is sullied whenever he allows himself to judge his brother severely. Secondly, a man’s heart is sullied whenever he takes pleasure in his own works and secretly admires his own virtue. This was the double sin of the Pharisee who went up into the temple to pray. He took pleasure in reviewing his good works and, from the height of his self–exaltation, looked down on the poor publican who made his own humble prayer as best he could.
The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:11–13).
The sin of the Pharisee was but the replication in a man of the sin of Lucifer, who, enamoured of his own beauty and perfections, compared himself to the other Angels. Lucifer found himself magnificent, and this he was, but being imbued with the certainty of his own excellence, he became inflated with pride. He thought himself a being altogether different from others; he saw himself as equal to God, and for this enormity was cast into the abyss.
A novice or monk can be rich in every manner of excellence: physically strong, intellectually superior, unequaled in his knowledge, indomitable in his ascetical rigor, and unsurpassable in his devotion to prayer. A man can have all these attributes and yet never attain the purity of heart that is the goal of the monastic life. The black secretion of pride sullies one’s heart and impairs one’s capacity to gaze upon God.
The 7th Degree of Humility relates to the word of Our Lord in the Gospel: “But when thou art invited, go, sit down in the lowest place” (Luke 14:10). Our Lord does not mean by this that one should contravene the conventions of polite society. The humble man will respect good manners and honour the dispositions of his host. Our Lord is here referring to the heavenly banquet: “Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Apocalypse 19:9). The man invited to intimate union with God — and every monk is invited to nothing less than this — risks losing everything by considering himself superior to others. He falls into the sin of Babylon:
As much as she hath glorified herself, and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her; because she saith in her heart: I sit a queen, and am no widow; and sorrow I shall not see. Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine, and she shall be burnt with the fire; because God is strong, who shall judge her. (Apocalypse 18:7–8)
The novice or monk who thinks himself advanced in virtue must run to the last place of all; recumbe in novissimo loco; go, “lie down in the lowest place” (Luke 14:10). This is where each of us is to lie down: recumbere. The Latin word means to fall down, or to sink down; it also means to recline at table, and has, therefore, a Johannine, Eucharistic, and mystical connotation. Erat ergo recumbens unus ex discipulis ejus in sinu Jesu, quem diligebat Jesus. “Now there was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23)
This sinking down in the last place of all was the preference of the Mother of God, “more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim”. It is not by happenstance that in his description of the Cenacle, Saint Luke names the Blessed Virgin Mary last of all:
And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James of Alpheus, and Simon Zelotes, and Jude the brother of James. All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. (Acts 1:13–14)
When Saint Luke wrote this account, he was himself illumined by the Holy Ghost and inspired in relating every detail. He names the Blessed Virgin Mary last of all to show that she comes at the end of all the great women of the Old Testament — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Judith, and Esther — and that she is, by her humility, the ipsa, the mysterious woman foretold in Genesis 3:15, the one who crushes the head of the ancient serpent. The first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles corresponds to the first chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel. There is a luminous arch that stretches from Luke 1:38, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”, and Luke 1:48, “He hath regarded the humility of his handmaid” to the naming of the Blessed Virgin in Acts 1:13–14, “All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus”. Saint Luke presents the Mother of God in her humility at the beginning of his Gospel and, again, at the beginning of the book of Acts. Our Lady of the Cenacle, the Queen of the Angels, of the Patriarchs, the Apostles, and all the Saints; the Tota Pulchra, the Παναγία in whom all the virtues are wondrously resplendent, finds grace in the last place of all. How can anyone of us ever imagine wanting a higher place than this?