CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
3 Feb. 4 June. 4 Oct.
The sixth degree of humility is, for a monk to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him to esteem himself a bad and worthless labourer, saying with the prophet: “I have been brought to nothing, and I knew it not: I am become as a beast before Thee, yet I am always with Thee.”
How can a monk be contented, that is, be happy, with the meanest and worst of everything? If any one of you were to say to your friends in the world, “I came to the monastery and, straightaway, I was told to be happy with the meanest and worst of everything,” your worldly friends would probably say, “Get out of that place as fast as you can.” The world tells men not to be happy without the finest and best of everything. The world says, “Settle for nothing less than the best because you deserve it.” The monk replies, “Listen here, you dear worldling friends of mine. ‘Better is one day in the courts of the Lord above thousands. I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners’ (Psalm 83:11). I am perfectly content with the meanest and worst of everything because I have found “the treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). How would I not sell all that I have in order to secure it for myself? I have found “one pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46). So delighted am I by its beauty that I have sold all that I have in order to buy it.
What makes you happy? The man, who can only be happy with the finest and best of everything, falls into unhappiness as soon as these commodities cannot be had, or when they are damaged, or go out of fashion, or when he loses them. The monk takes Our Lord’s own words to heart:
Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
A monk may not indulge in bitter regrets, recriminations, or revindications. He may not say, “Such and such a thing is my due because I have earned it and I deserve it.” He says, instead, “No one owes me anything. I give away in advance anything that, by worldly standards, I may have earned. If I deserve anything—acknowledgement, recompense, recognition, or thanks—I freely let go of all such expectations, in order to be numbered among the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Letting go of all such expectations is the beginning of opening one’s heart to a joy that the world cannot give. A monk must take literally the words of Our Lord in the Gospel: “So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do” (Luke 17:10).
The most extraordinary thing about the sixth degree of humility is that it ends by sending us to the conclusion of Psalm 72. It is the musing of a man faithful to God and yet confused and confounded by the disparity that he sees between men of the world and the likes of himself. Men of the world appear to have everything: prosperity, health, companionship, pleasures, and success. The faithful friend of God looks at his own life and says, “What have I in exchange for having staked my life on God alone? I have misery, infirmity, loneliness, abjection, and failure.” The faithful friend of God cannot make sense of it. He goes, then, to the sanctuary, to the one place where he is sure of finding of God, and there he waits for God to reveal to him the disparity that he can neither comprehend nor resolve. What happens? Listen to the psalm:
I set myself to read the riddle, but it proved a hard search, until I betook myself to God’s sanctuary, and considered, there, what becomes of such men at last. The truth is, thou art making a slippery path for their feet, ready to plunge them in ruin; in a moment they are fallen, in a storm of terrors vanished and gone. And thou, Lord, dost rise up and brush aside all their imaginings, as a waking man his dream. What if my mind was full of bitterness, what if I was pierced to the heart? I was all dumbness, I was all ignorance, standing there like a brute beast in thy presence. Yet ever thou art at my side, ever holdest me by my right hand. Thine to guide me with thy counsel, thine to welcome me into glory at last. What else does heaven hold for me, but thyself? What charm for me has earth, here at thy side? What though flesh of mine, heart of mine, should waste away? Still God will be my heart’s stronghold, eternally my inheritance. (Psalm 72:16-26)
Dear sons, you will all have days and hours when nothing of the monastic life makes sense, when all you can see is the disparity between your lot and the lot of successful, happy achievers and high-flyers in the world. You may sometimes say to yourself, “Have I come here to live like this? The days of my life are passing by, and what have to show for all my labour?” When such days come and when you find yourself at such dark hours, go to the sanctuary, go to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, the one place where you are certain of finding God. Remain there, silent in the presence of the One for whose sake you have left all else. You will, I promise you, find yourself at length saying with the psalmist, Mihi autem adhærere Deo bonum est, “it is good for me to adhere to my God; I know no other content but clinging to God” (Psalm 72:28). Or, as another translation has, “To be near God is my happiness.”