The first degree of humility (VII:1)


26 Jan. 27 May. 26 Sept.

The first degree of humility, then, is that a man, always keeping the fear of God before his eyes, avoid all forgetfulness; and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded, bethinking himself that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for them that fear Him. And keeping himself at all times from sin and vice, whether of the thoughts, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or his own will, let him thus hasten to cut off the desires of the flesh.

The first degree of humility is to keep oneself in the presence of God. Psalm 90, prayed at Compline, sings of the all–enveloping presence of God. The monk who is content to live beneath the gaze of God finds in it his defence, his refuge, and his stronghold.

Content if thou be to live with the most High for thy defence, under his Almighty shadow abiding still, him thy refuge, him thy stronghold thou mayst call, thy own God, in whom is all thy trust. He it is will rescue thee from every treacherous lure, every destroying plague. His wings for refuge, nestle thou shalt under his care, his faithfulness thy watch and ward. (Psalm 90:1–5)

Saint Benedict, alone in the Sacro Speco, his cave at Subiaco, lived with himself—habitavit secum—beneath the gaze of God. Saint Gregory says that Saint Benedict “lived [there] with himself, in the sight of Him who seeth all things”. When Peter, his interlocutor in the Second Book of the Dialogues, asked for a clarification of what Saint Gregory meant, he said:

This holy man lived with himself, because he never turned the eye of his soul from himself, but standing always on his guard with great circumspection, he kept himself continually in the all-seeing eye of his Creator. (Second Book of the Dialogues, Chapter II)

Psalm 138, like Psalm 90, helps us to understand all that the first degree of humility contains. The piety of Saint Benedict was principally the Psalter. In the Psalter a monk will find all that he needs to pray his way through the Holy Rule. One who wishes to enter deeply into the particular grace of the first degree of humility must meditate Psalm 138.

Lord, I lie open to thy scrutiny; thou knowest me, knowest when I sit down and when I rise up again, canst read my thoughts from far away. Walk I or sleep I, thou canst tell; no movement of mine but thou art watching it. Before ever the words are framed on my lips, all my thought is known to thee; rearguard and vanguard, thou dost compass me about, thy hand still laid upon me. Such wisdom as thine is far beyond my reach, no thought of mine can attain it. Where can I go, then, to take refuge from thy spirit, to hide from thy view? If I should climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I sink down to the world beneath, thou art present still. If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find thee beckoning to me, thy right hand upholding me. Or perhaps I would think to bury myself in darkness; night should surround me, friendlier than day; but no, darkness is no hiding-place from thee, with thee the night shines clear as day itself; light and dark are one. (Psalm 138:1–12)

Before writing the twelve degrees of humility, Saint Benedict lived them. To those who want to know about the life of Saint Benedict, Saint Gregory the Great says this:

If any wish to know further, he may in the institution of that Rule understand all his manner of life and discipline, for the holy man could not possibly teach otherwise than he lived. (Second Book of the Dialogues, Chapter XXXVI)

Saint Benedict, of course, imitated the life of the monastic fathers before him. These he came to know through the writings of Cassian. All the monastic fathers, however, looked to the patriarchs and prophets of the Bible as models of the life of man with God. Abraham models the first degree of humility, in that his essential holiness consisted in this: he walked in the presence of God.

Ego Deus omnipotens: ambula coram me, et esto perfectus.
The Lord appeared to him: and said unto him: I am the Almighty God: walk before me, and be perfect. (Genesis 17:1)

The prophet Elijah’s greatness lay not in his spectacular triumph over the priests of Baal, but in his perpetual remembrance of the presence of God:

Vivit Dominus exercituum, ante cujus vultum sto.
As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whose face I stand. (III Kings 18:15)

The monk who abides always in the presence of God is, in effect, living in a state of perpetual adoration. He will, almost imperceptibly, begin to pray always, saying with the angelic choirs, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thus does a monk begin to keep himself at all times from sin and vice, whether of the thoughts, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or his own will.

All sin begins in the thoughts. Evagrius identifies the eight thoughts from which all vices spring: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, sloth, vainglory, and pride. Sins of the tongue follow; these are but the articulation of Evagrius’ eight thoughts. Sins of the hands are involved in all that is greedy and grasping, and in the handling or mishandling of persons and things.

Sins of the feet occur when one gives into the temptations against stability, when one wants to move on, when one is obsessed with being elsewhere, when one fantasises about changing places, or wants to flee from responsibility. Two sayings of the Desert Fathers, related to sins of the feet, come to mind:

Palladius said, “One day when I was suffering from acedia I went to abba Macarius and said, “What shall I do? My thoughts afflict me, saying, you are not making any progress, go away from here”. He said to me, “Tell them, for Christ’s sake, I am guarding the walls”.

Someone said to Abba Arsenius, “My thoughts trouble me, saying, You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity”. But the old man, recognising the suggestions of the demons, said to him, “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell”. For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.

Sins of the will occur when, in one’s thoughts, one turns away from the goodness and beauty of God and says to oneself, “I shall do as I like, take back my freedom, and have the life that I want”. Thoughts such as these pervert the will and, unless they are dashed against the rock that is Christ, lead to “the exterior darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”(Matthew 22:13).

There is no more effective way of cutting off the desires of the flesh, that is all that proceeds from Evagrius’ eight thoughts—gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, sloth, vainglory, and pride—than by living with oneself beneath the gaze of God, just as Saint Benedict did. Evil thoughts are driven out by ceaseless prayer, and by storing up within one’s heart an abundant supply of the Word of God. At the end of the day, the first degree of humility becomes the practice of ceaseless prayer. It is this that introduces a monk into the grace of perpetual adoration.