CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
25 Jan. 26 May. 25 Sept.
The Holy Scripture crieth out to us, brethren, saying: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.” In saying this, it teacheth us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, against which the prophet sheweth himself to be on his guard when he saith: “Lord, my heart is not exalted nor mine eyes lifted up; nor have I walked in great things, nor in wonders above me.” For why? “If I did not think humbly, but exalted my soul: like a child that is weaned from his mother, so wilt Thou requite my soul.” Whence, brethren, if we wish to arrive at the highest point of humility, and speedily to reach that heavenly exaltation to which we can only ascend by the humility of this present life, we must by our ever-ascending actions erect such a ladder as that which Jacob beheld in his dream, by which the angels appeared to him descending and ascending. This descent and ascent signifieth nothing else than that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder thus erected is our life in the world, which, if the heart be humbled, is lifted up by the Lord to heaven. The sides of the same ladder we understand to be our body and soul, in which our divine vocation hath placed various degrees of humility or discipline, which we must ascend.
We come today to the heart of the Holy Rule. Chapter VII opens with a kind of clarion call from the parable of the wedding feast in Saint Luke’s Gospel: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). It is impossible to read this opening verse of Chapter VII without hearing, at the same time, the voice of the Mother of God, who bearing her unborn Son beneath her heart, sings:
He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. (Luke 1:51–53)
All of Chapter VII is intelligible only when the opening verse is joined to its closing verse:
Ergo, his omnibus humilitatis gradibus ascensis, monachus mox ad caritatem Dei perveniet illam quae perfecta foris mittit timorem.
Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that charity of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear.
The exaltation of the humble is an assumption into the glory of love, “In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because he hath first loved us” (1 John 4:10). Not for nothing do we sing in the Office of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Maria Virgo assúmpta est ad æthéreum thálamum, in quo Rex regum stelláto sedet sólio.
The Virgin Mary hath been taken into the chamber on high, where the King of kings sitteth on a starry throne.
The Blessed Virgin Mary illuminates all of Chapter VII, from beginning to end. The beginning corresponds to what Our Lady says concerning herself — Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word (Luke 1:38) — and the end corresponds to what she says concerning God — He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble (Luke 1:52). All of Benedictine life unfolds between these two utterances of the Mother of God. The life of the monk is the itinerary of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Annunciation to the Assumption.
The Twelve Degrees of Humility are daunting. They are the via crucis of the monk, an ascent to the Cross and a descent into the tomb. At the same time, the Twelve Degrees of Humility are a via Mariae. Listen to Saint Bernard:
O thou, whosoever thou art, that knowest thyself to be not so much walking upon firm ground, as battered to and fro by the gales and storms of this life’s ocean, if thou wouldest not be overwhelmed by the tempest, keep thine eyes fixed upon this star’s clear shining. If the hurricanes of temptation rise against thee, or thou art headed for the rocks of trouble, look to the star, call upon Mary. If the waves of sin toss thee, look to the star, call upon Mary. If the billows of anger or avarice, or the enticements of the flesh beat against the ship of thy soul, look to Mary. In danger, in difficulty, or in doubt, think on Mary, call upon Mary. (Saint Bernard, Super missus est 2, 17; PL 183, 70-71)
We cannot know fully on this side of heaven all of the circumstances of our lives in which the Blessed Virgin Mary intervened to rescue us, to preserve us from danger, to set us on the right path. I am convinced that in the darkest and most threatening moments of my own life, the Mother of God intervened to save me. Every monastic vocation is at once a grace and a decision. Insofar as our vocations are a grace, we can be certain that they were given us through the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is the Mediatrix of All Graces. If we entrust our vocations to the Mother of God through whom they were given us, she will protect us along the way and bring us, by means of the Twelve Degrees of Humility, to “that love of God which, being perfect, casteth out fear” (Chapter VII).
Mary, the virgo potentissima et humilissima, is our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To the man who, in the grip of acedia, feels drained of life and overcome by weariness, she is life. To the man embittered by life’s struggles and injustices, to the man wronged and betrayed, she is sweetness. To the man unable to emerge from despondency and tempted to despair, she is hope. I tell you these things because I believe them and because I know them to be true. I tell you these things because each of you needs to hear them, if not in view of today, then in view of some day in your future.
Open your heart and your life to Our Lady’s virginising and sanctifying presence, and you will make your way through the Twelve Degrees of Humility almost without perceiving your progress. And it is better that way. For each Degree of Humility there is a corresponding degree of grace that is in Our Lady’s giving. Never does the Mediatrix of All Graces send away empty the man who appeals to her maternal Heart. Go to her at the first Degree of Humility and ask her to accompany you all the rest of the way. Our Lady will always lead you to her Son. If you would love Christ, love her. If you would imitate Christ, imitate her. If you would follow Christ and live in His presence, follow her and live in her presence.
I have always found it striking that the very word used by Our Lady in her Magnificat — suscepit — to describe the saving condescension of God is the same word that every monk sings on the day of his profession. The image evoked is that of the father who, by taking a newborn child into his arms, recognises the child as his own, becoming the child’s provider and protector. The Blessed Virgin Mary proclaims, “Suscepit Israël puerum suum, recordatus misericordiæ suæ” (Luke 1:54), and the monk, puer et filius (servant and son), sings, “Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam” (Psalm 118:116).
He hath lifted up unto Himself Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy. (Luke 1:54)
Lift Thou me up unto Thyself, O Lord, and I shall live (Psalm 118:116).
After referring to Psalm 130, the song of spiritual childhood, Saint Benedict introduces the Twelve Degrees of Humility with the image of the ladder beheld by Jacob in a dream. The ladder corresponds to the spiritual itinerary of the monk:
Whence, brethren, if we wish to arrive at the highest point of humility, and speedily to reach that heavenly exaltation to which we can only ascend by the humility of this present life, we must by our ever-ascending actions erect such a ladder as that which Jacob beheld in his dream, by which the angels appeared to him descending and ascending.
This ladder, apart from representing “our life in the world, which, if the heart be humbled, is lifted up by the Lord to heaven”, represents the Holy Mother of God. In the ladder which joins heaven and earth the Fathers saw a prefiguring of the Blessed Virgin Mary through whom the Son of God descended (and still descends) into the midst of men in order to offer them salvation by uniting them to Himself. By presenting the life of the monk under the image of Jacob’s ladder, Saint Benedict effectively points to the Blessed Virgin Mary who, in all the mysteries of Her life, from the Annunciation to the Assumption, draws the monk after her, down into the lowliness of her servanthood, and upward into the glory of love.