Et ego ad nihilum redactus sum (VII:10)

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.”

Just as physical diseases can be identified by the symptoms they produce in an organism, so too can the spiritual disease of pride be recognised by certain manifestations. Among these manifestations is a chronic discontent with what is. The prideful man has difficulty distinguishing among his needs, his wants, and his preferences. He easily convinces himself that unless he has a certain thing—and has it on his own terms— he will be incapable of going forward. He balks at limitations and restrictions, and places his own needs and wants before the needs of others. He stands on what he perceives as his rights and takes note of what others have or are given.

The humble man, in contrast, accepts what is. He maintains a certain equanimity when faced with deprivations, delays, and refusals. The Apostle gives the example:

I know both how to be brought low, and I know how to abound: (every where, and in all things I am instructed) both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need. I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me. (Philippians 4:12-13)

When I read accounts of the reconstruction and restoration of monastic life after a time of war or social upheaval, be they, for example, in the 19th century after the devastation of the French Revolution or in the 20th century after the Second World War, I am struck by the fortitude with which the protagonists, in the spirit of the sixth degree of humility, suffered want and endured hardship.

Mother Mectilde was no stranger to homelessness, financial insecurity, deprivations, persecutions, calumnies, and discomforts of all sorts. “I adore,” she said, “and I submit.” This saying of Mother Mectilde expresses everything that one could want to say about the sixth degree of humility.

Saint Benedict draws from Psalm 72 to express the sentiments of the monk who has arrived at the sixth degree of humility:

For my heart hath been inflamed, and my reins have been changed: and I am brought to nothing, and I knew not. I am become as a beast before thee: and I am always with thee. Thou hast held me by my right hand; and by thy will thou hast conducted me, and with thy glory thou hast received me. For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. For behold they that go far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that are disloyal to thee. But it is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God. (Psalm 72:21-28)

In many a crisis I have found peace in praying these verses of Psalm 72. The monk who is practicing the sixth degree of humility believes, even in the face of contradictions and loss, that “to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Romans 8:28). “It is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God.”

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