The Oratory of the Heart, Part Four: Falling off the Ladder of Humility
In the last three posts I’ve looked at three broad Benedictine concepts: Prayer, Lectio Divina, and the Vows (see links above). In this post, I want to focus on one of the pivotal chapters of the Rule: Chapter Seven, where Benedict uses the metaphor of a ladder to describe humility.
He compares this ladder to the one that Jacob saw in his dream (Genesis 18:12). “But with this difference,” he writes. “Our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God.”
This is the chapter of the Rule that I struggle with the most. At some time or other, I falter at each and every step:
1) “Cherish at all times the sense of awe at which we should turn to God.”
I have already talked about prayer and lectio divina, and now I must admit how often I fail at each. I neglect both prayer and scripture reading, yet each time I find a convenient excuse: not to skip, just to delay. “I’ll get around to it,” I say but the clock ticks by and I never do. An example, I missed Morning Prayer the day I wrote this draft. I kept putting it off, and then when I looked at the clock it was lunchtime. This happens more often than I care to admit.
2) Do not “love having our own way or . . . delight in our own desires.”
How often do I put someone else’s desires above my own? Right now, could I be helping someone instead of selfishly wasting my time online reading about football or politics? Could I be playing with my daughter? Is what I’m doing really more important?
3) “Submit oneself out of love of God to whatever obedience a superior may desire.”
Another tricky one: I obey the rules when there is a real consequence, but otherwise not so much. I speed on the freeway all the time. Sure, I’m only going five miles per hour over the speed limit while everyone else is going ten or fifteen, but so what? I could sit in the slow lane, set my cruise at the limit, and let the impatient drivers pass me. But I’m one of the impatient drivers. The only difference is that I don’t go quite fast enough to risk a ticket. I also jaywalk sometimes, and I start crossing the street before the walk light comes on, or run across when the red signal is flashing. These seem like nothing, but I have to wonder: what other rules would I break if I could get away with it? How far would I go? Who might get hurt?
4) Accept “in patience and silent endurance . . . any hard or demanding things that may come our way.”
How many times do feel put out when I have to do something I don’t want to do? Whether it’s something uplifting like prayer or mundane like taking out the trash: I skipped both this morning.
5) “Humbly confess . . . whatever evil thoughts have some into our minds or the evil deeds we have done in secret.”
“It’s been almost three months since my last confession.” Those are the words I would say to a priest if I went to confession today, but I’m not going. My excuse? I can’t find the time to go. But what could be more important than getting right with God? Oh I’ll just pray for forgiveness on my own—once I get around to praying on my own: I’m still putting that off too. But my sins aren’t that bad, right? Other people do far worse things, right?
This is why confession of some kind is necessary. I know that most of you aren’t Catholic, and don’t feel that you need to confess to a priest. God hears us either way, right? Of course, but are we honestly confessing to God or just paying him lip service? There’s something to be said for having a spiritual guide of some sort who can hold you to a real confession: perhaps a trusted mentor, or a soul friend.
6) “Accept without complaint really wretched and inadequate conditions” and “when faced with a task of any kind . . . repeat to God . . . ‘I am of no account and lack understanding’ (Psalm 73).”
Oh, am I good at complaining. Usually under my breath, which Benedict calls “murmuring” and says is the worst kind of complaining there is: destructive, underhanded griping. It’s what the Israelites did in the desert and often I’m not any better than they were.
7) To “speak of ourselves as of less importance and less worthy than others, not as a mere phrase on our lips but . . . in our hearts.”
Feigning humility is easy. We all do it. We accept a compliment with a “no, it was nothing really” when inside we congratulate ourselves for a job well done. I know I do it, and to be honest I think that the fake humility is worse than no humility at all. “Oh please, you don’t need to thank me.” When I say that and don’t mean it, I might as well just say, “You’re welcome” and leave it at that.
8] “Do nothing beyond what is approved and encouraged by the common rule of the monastery and the example of our seniors.”
Another great trap: “I am more pious than thou! You pray daily? Well, I pray twice a day! You pray the rosary once a week? Well I pray it daily!” I am the Pharisee saying “I’m better than this tax-collecting scumbag” and it turns my prayer into empty words. I love incense, but this is the self-righteous brand that stinks in God’s nostrils.
9) “Refrain from unnecessary speech.”
How many things have I said that I wish I could take back? Both in person, and worse still on the Internet: This particular step should be Rule One on every comment board.
10) “Do not “be given to empty laughter on the least occasion.”
I love to laugh, and at first I had trouble figuring this one out, but the key phrase here is “empty laughter.” Some of the funniest people I’ve known have been deeply holy. Yet their humor always comes from a place of love and joy. My humor often comes from a sarcastic, judgmental place that has nothing to do with joy. It’s what my mom would call “taking the Mickey.” The funniest people know that they have to make fun of themselves first: that’s where real humor lies. And when I can laugh at myself and see my own failings I am a little humbler and a little closer to God. That kind of laughter is never empty: It is full to overflowing.
11) “Speak gently and seriously with words that are weighty and restrained.”
Again, I often speak without thinking and regret it. Better to wait, measure my words, and speak from the heart. Not only will my speech be more uplifting to others, I won’t fall into my bad habit of cursing. I used to say that foul words are placeholders in a poor vocabulary. God gives me the words to do better than that.
12) Your humility “should be apparent . . . to all who see” you.
This is the trickiest one of all. Here I am, having just written a post about how I have failed on every single step of Benedict’s Ladder of Humility, and yet, is my humble admission its own kind of boast? Am I falling into the trap again without realizing it?
I can’t say: only you the reader can. All I can do is pray to God that he guides my steps on the ladder. I can’t do it myself.
All quotes from Ch. 7 of The Rule of Saint Benedict, tr. Patrick Barry O.S.B. from The Benedictine Handbook. Ed. Anthony Marrett-Crosby O.S.B. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2003.
Earlier posts in the series.