The Wisdom of Humility

An Awareness of God’s Presence

In Holy Week the topic of humility is one which readily comes to mind as we ponder on St Paul’s words: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). Humility hasn’t got an attractive image in today’s secular culture which is more focused on self-assertion and celebrity. However, for St Benedict, and the Christian tradition, the key virtue which we need to acquire as we hasten towards the Kingdom is that of humility. T. S. Eliot in his poem Four Quartets comments that ”The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

Most commentators agree that the spiritual core of St Benedict’s Rule is to be found in Chapter 7 on humility which is the longest and most spiritually demanding chapter in the Rule. Why, one may ask, is humility given such a central role in Benedict’s way of Christian discipleship? Other religious orders emphasise poverty or preaching or discernment; why in Benedict’s case is it humility? The answer lies, I think, in his vision of the Christian and monastic life as a journey to God undertaken with others in community. Benedict sees community life as possible only where people are humble because, as Cardinal Basil Hume once said, proud men cannot live at peace together. The twelve steps in St Benedict’s ladder of humility are not, however, chronological steps but the description of a lived experience under its many different facets. Michael Casey ocso[1] helpfully compares these steps to an escalator rather than a ladder as all the steps on an escalator are in movement at the same time.

Just over ten years ago twelve year old William Mc Donald, a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, was installed for a day before Christmas as a boy bishop, a tradition which goes back at Salisbury to the 14th century. William, preaching from the bishop’s throne, explained that humility was about being “gentle in nature, being selfless, being aware that there is a spiritual presence greater than ourselves.” He continued: “If, in God’s presence, we are humble in nature, we do not need to worry about who we are. We do not need to worry about what we do. We do not need to worry what is going to happen in our daily lives. Being humble, having that quality of humility, gives us all the strength to trust in God.”[2] In other words, William is saying that humility is about trusting in God’s love for us, trusting that he will uphold us and that our strength comes from him and not from ourselves.


Reflection 1: How aware are you of God’s presence in your everyday life?


I Was No Longer the Centre of My Life

For Benedict the primary relationship in our lives is the one we have with God. “The first step of humility, then, is that a person keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it” (RB 7:10). Fear of God is the foundation of humility and implies an attitude of reverence and awe before the majesty and otherness of God. It is to become aware that we are totally dependent upon Him for our being and that he keeps us in existence every moment of our lives. In other words, there is the humbling recognition that we are creatures and that God is God.

A quotation from Bede Griffith’s autobiography, The Golden String, sums up perhaps what is at the core of Benedict’s understanding of humility, what he calls fear of the Lord.

“I suddenly saw that all the time it was not I who had been seeking God, but God who had been seeking me. I had made myself the centre of my own existence and had my back turned to God. All the beauty and truth which I had discovered had come to me as a reflection of his beauty, but I had kept my eyes fixed on the reflection and was always looking at myself.

But God had brought me to the point at which I was compelled to turn away from the reflection, both of myself and of the world which could only mirror my own image.

During that night the mirror had been broken, and I had felt abandoned because I could no longer gaze upon the image of my own reason and the finite world which it knew. God had brought me to my knees and made me acknowledge my own nothingness, and out of that knowledge I had been reborn. I was no longer the centre of my life and therefore I could see God in everything.”

Yes, we have been made in the image and likeness of God and we are the summit of God’s creation. However, we must never forget that we are completely dependent on him. When St Augustine’s mother, St Monica, was talking to her son shortly before her death she said: “Yes, we are beautiful, but we did not make ourselves.” And the foundation of real humility is to acknowledge that fact and to be thankful. This gratitude will express itself in everyday life. And ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ will be words which will come naturally to us.

Mgr Pierre Claverie writes: “The life which I receive multiplies itself in being shared… I must absolutely empty myself of all that clutters my inner space … and exterior also. …Humility consists not in despising oneself, of putting oneself in a mouse hole, as Bernanos puts it, but in arranging a space where I don’t hold centre stage, where I don’t prevent others from entering.”[3] In his own life he put this into practice by having an open door policy whereby anyone could drop in off the street to see him without an appointment.


Reflection 2: Who is centre stage in your life?


I Have Come Not to Do My Own Will

Humility teaches us that we are not the centre of the universe but that God is. Once the foundation has been laid, the recognition of our total dependence on God for life and all its gifts, then we are in a position to relate to others in a way which recognises our interdependence. “The second step of humility is that a person loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; rather he shall imitate by his actions the saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (RB 7:31).

The word self-will has an old fashioned ring and it’s not one you are likely to meet in popular self-help books. Terrence Kardong osb defines it as the: “the human drive for autonomy from every outside authority, including God.”[4] The desire to make other people in my image and likeness, to have everyone at my beck and call is what self-will is all about. When we put ourselves at the centre of the universe, we fall into this trap. Excessive focusing on ‘me’ and my needs, my rights and my misfortunes is all part of this syndrome by which we are all afflicted, to a greater or lesser extent.

As Michael Casey ocso puts it: “In so much of what concerns humility we will find that the way ahead is indicated by forgetfulness of self and concern for others. Humility’s opposite is always preoccupation with self.”[5] One helpful way to think about humility is in terms of our being ready to serve, to put others first. In the Letter to the Philippians St Paul talks about Christ’s humility in terms of his sacrificial love and total self-emptying. Humility is service, love in action, a love which does not seek to put itself first nor impose itself on others.

Perhaps a good indicator of how we are doing in this domain is the quality of our listening. Humility is about relationships and a huge component of a good relationship is the ability to listen – to listen to oneself, to others and to God, what St Benedict means by ‘obedience’. Openness to the Holy Spirit, openness to other people requires an ability to listen well. To listen well presupposes a certain inner freedom from self-preoccupation, a freedom which allows us to give our full attention to the other person and to put aside our own thoughts. It is this ability to listen well which also enables us to tune in to the promptings of the Spirit, which is what Christian obedience is all about.


Reflection 3: How good a listener are you?


Entering into Communion

Humility enables us to see that of God in the other, what is loveable in them, hidden sometimes behind a forbidding exterior. And in this light from God, we can more easily accept that others are closer to God than we are. I think it’s true to say that as we grow in self-knowledge, we realise more and more our dependence on God for everything we are and do. And we also realise more and more our weakness and sinfulness. Michael Casey ocso writes that as the monk “advances in the spiritual life he begins to believe that he is a bad bargain. … The experience of God is a revelation of my unworthiness. In this context, to believe that I am inferior to others and less meritorious is a realistic proposition.”[6]

And, of course, the opposite idea that I am in some fundamental way superior, or better, than others is not a recipe for good community relationships. St Paul writes to the Philippians, “In humility regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3). Bernard Bonowitz, ocso, in his challenging book on humility, Saint Bernard’s Three-Course Banquet[7], tells us that for Bernard pride is “being in love with your own specialness.”[8] St Bernard encourages monastics to persevere in their search for humility for the consequences of not doing so are very painful. Bonowitz writes: “If you want to live in relationship with other persons, if you don’t want to end up in existential solitude and isolation, if you don’t wish to live in a one-person universe (which is the worst of all fates), then seek humility, because humility is the door to all communion and pride is the condition of all alienation.”[9] The humble person by entering into communion with others begins to discover their riches and at the same time he knows the joy which koinonia alone can bring, the joy of being close to God and to other people.

And humility, says Pierre Claverie, is one of the key virtues in relating to others. “Humility is about entering into a fraternal relationship with others and not a domineering, seductive or invasive one. And the key to humility is voluntary poverty, it is to accept to be poor in one’s claims on the other. Concretely this means paying attention to someone, whereas too often we live in indifference side by side because we know each other too well.”[10] We can give little signs of being truly present to the people we meet by the way we say hello to them, thanking them for a lovely meal. In this way by giving them our full attention, by recognising their existence we let them know that they are valued, that they exist in our eyes.


Reflection 4: What do you understand by “domineering, seductive or invasive’ relationships? Where do you lie on the spectrum?


Tuning in to the Spirit

The ninth, tenth & eleventh steps of humility concern moderation, control in speech and silence. “The ninth step of humility is that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question, for Scripture warns, ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sinning, and a talkative man goes about aimlessly on earth’ “(RB 7:56-58). A good example of this type of controlled speech is found in St Benedict’s advice to the bursar on how to manage unreasonable requests. He must “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request” (RB 31:7). If he hasn’t got any goods to meet a request, he will, however, “offer a kind word in reply, for it is written: A kind word is better than the best gift” (RB 31:13-14).

Benedict loves silence because, I believe, he wants us to become people who are able to tune in to the Spirit, whether it be in the Word of God, in other people or in our own selves. To do this requires inner stillness, something not easily acquired if we are full of noise and chatter. Monastic life is shaped and formed by the practice of lectio divina. Prayerfully pondering the Scriptures is the daily bread and butter of the monk and is at the heart of his conversion, the putting on of “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). And silence helps us to listen more carefully to “the voice of the Lord calling to us” to set out on the journey of conversion, to become humble like the humble Christ. Discovering God’s loving presence at the centre of our lives empowers us to begin to accept ourselves as we are, the biggest step we will ever take on the road to humility.

As T. S. Eliot tells us, the journey of humility “is endless”; Michael Casey ocso maintains that this journey will take the average monk forty to fifty years! St Benedict assures us that having completed this journey, having climbed “all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the perfect love of God which drives out fear” (RB 7:67).


Reflection 5: How difficult do you find silence? How important is it in your life?


[1] Introducing Benedict’s Rule, Michael Casey & David Tomlins, Editions of St Ottilien, Germany, 2008, p. 58.
[2] Church Times, p.15, 11 December, 2009.
[3] Je ne savais pas mon nom, pp.71, 72.
[4] Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary, Terrence G. Kardong, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1996, p. 142.
[5] Truthful Living: St Benedict’s Teaching on Humility, Gracewing, England2001, pp. 130-131.
[6] Truthful Living, pp. 193 & 197.
[7] Saint Bernard’s Three-Course Banquet: Humility, Charity and Contemplation in the De Gradibus, Cistercian Publications, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2013.
[8] Ibid., p. 7.
[9] Ibid., p. 7.
[10] Quel Bonheur d’Être Croyant, p. 62.