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. I say this with a certain regret because each time we finish reading Chapter VII, I have the sense that it has passed too quickly, that not enough has been said, and that all that I have tried to say falls short of the mystery that Chapter VII contains. 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 and having made his own the prayer of the publican, ” O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13), dares to lift 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 Christus passus, that is, of the Victim Christ in the hour of His passing over to the Father. This moment is forever actual and present; it is not captured as if in an old photograph like a memory from the distant past. Insofar as the theandric deeds of Jesus are those of one who is true man, they are indeed fixed at a moment in time and in a particular location; but insofar as they are the deeds of one who is God, they are eternally present and actual, allowing us to reach them and to be affected by them in the sacraments, and in the Sacrament of Sacraments that is the Most Holy Eucharist. The death of Jesus is perpetuated not only in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but also in the Host, the true Body of Christ, for where Christ is truly present, there too are present all His mysteries in their saving power.
In reflecting on the Prologue of the Holy Rule, I often say that the best commentary on the text was written not by a Benedictine, but by a Dominican; it is Beato Angelico’s Annunciation. I must say the same thing regarding the 12th degree of humility in Chapter VII. If you would see the 12th degree of humility, contemplate Beato Angelico’s crucified Jesus at San Marco in Florence. More can be learned about the 12th degree of humility by gazing at Fra Angelico’s crucified Jesus than in reading volumes of written commentary. For Saint Benedict, the summit of humility is configuration to the crucified Jesus, to the Christus passus, to Jesus in the very act of acquiescing with filial abandonment to the will of the Father. Saint Benedict lifts a very telling phrase from Saint John’s account of the death of the Lord to describe the interior transformation of the monk: Et inclinato capite tradidit spiritum:
Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It is consummated. And bowing his head, he gave up the Spirit. (John 19:30)
This phrase is the key to understanding all of Chapter VII, and he who understands Chapter VII, has, I think, understood all of the Holy Rule. 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)
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)
After having taken us through the twelve degrees of humility, Saint Benedict shows us where they lead: to the charity of God, that is to the fatherhood of God that casts out fear. The perfect monk is the one who has become like a little child. Tomorrow we shall begin reading the chapters of the Holy Rule that treat of the Opus Dei. Chapters IV, V, VI, and VII are ordered to the praise of God, through the Son, in the Holy Ghost. The movement of these chapters is ad Patrem (towards the Father). The monk best prepared for the Opus Dei is the one who confesses the glory of the fatherhood of God, the one for whom the fatherhood of God, the mystery that shines from every page of the Fourth Gospel, is the great foundational truth of his life. The last degree of humility is like the first sentence of the Canon of the Mass: Te igitur clementissime Pater. It opens onto the Gloria Patri of Chapters VIII—XIX. It is that by which a monk learns to say with Our Lord, Ita Pater. “Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight” (Matthew 11:26)