24 February 2008

Another question on Bendict's Ladder of Humility

[[I understand what you said about Benedict's ladder of humility and not treating it like a series of steps we must take in order to achieve humility, but as I read the Rule, Benedict does seem to attribute some benefit to using these steps as things to do rather just as signs of growth already achieved. Do you think this is so, or am I misreading what he actually says? Doesn't Benedict believe and teach that outward discipline leads to inward dispositions over time?]]

Thanks for the question, and for the chance to clarify or nuance what I have already said in regard to Benedict's ladder of humility. First, I think we must reject the idea that taking on these steps CAUSES the growth in humility, and accept rather that they are PRIMARILY SIGNS of progress in growth already achieved, manifestations of inward changes. This is what I meant when I said that these steps are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In this I agree completely with Michael Casey's comments related to those cited earlier: [[ To picture monastic life as a process of exaltation clearly emphasizes that it is God who is the active agent; the monk is the one lifted up. This offsets the idea that the "ladder of humility" is a spiritual Mt Everest that the dilligent monk must climb by personal efforts.. . .As we have insisted in the last chapter, the behavioral forms of humility are not proposed as a program of exercises to reach the summit. Saint Benedict offers them as the normal manifestations of growth. Humility is not a state achieved by direct application of effort. It follows the action of God, and is the usual indication that grace is at work.]] (Living in the Truth, Saint Benendict's teaching on humility." Michael Casey, OCS)

But does undertaking these steps if we have not arrived at them "naturally" result in any benefit? And if so, what benefit is that? If someone wants to grow in humility, can they do so by taking on these steps one at a time and practicing them, or is the situation more complex than this? In particular, which of these steps are behaviors one CAN practice and which point specifically to inner attitudes one must acquire as foundational to any behaviors?

First, it should be noted that the Rule of Benedict clearly says that humility is the BASIS for climbing or ascending the ladder of humility: RB7:7 "Without doubt, this descent and ascent is to be understood as meaning we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility." In other words, growth in humility is the cause, not the effect of these "steps" or rungs. Secondly, the fact is that Benedict's ladder of humility begins with internal or interior dispositions of the heart, and only later (and gradually) moves to external behavior. So, while it is certainly not true that external behaviors have no place, it remains true that growth in humility begins in interior dispositions which lead to exteriorization, not vice versa.

Still, your question has not been answered completely. Does doing certain external behaviors lead to interior dispositions? Doesn't Benedict believe that this can be so? And the simple answer is yes, to some limited extent. For instance, thinking badly of oneself CAN lead one to count on the grace and forgiveness of God. It can, as it did for Luther, for instance, open one to the good news of the Gospel about the unconditional forgiveness of God. The problem is, however, that one cannot adopt this belief or simply say to oneself without genuine conviction that one is the worst of sinners and really be open to the truth of the Gospel. One must REALLY believe this in order to hunger to hear the REST of the truth, the real bottom line. So it is not something one can practice "from the outside in" so to speak.

Perhaps a better example is the fifth rung of the ladder, because it deals with something that is more clearly an external behavior: [[a monk does not conceal his abbot any evil thoughts entering his heart, or any evils secretly committed by him. instead he confesses them humbly.]] Over time, this practice can clearly reveal one's own heart to one. But to work properly, a certain degree of true humility is presupposed (as the instruction clearly states). One might also, therefore, come face to face with the changes that need to occur in one's heart and life, and therefore be opened to the grace of God which will actually work these changes. But it remains grace which is presupposed right along; that is, it is the action of God which brings about the humility, and the grace of God which even makes the doing of the "steps" rightly possible.

When one honestly holds nothing back from one's legitimate superior, one practices the honesty which is the heart of humility, but one requires grace to do this. One exercises humility and can grow in it, especially if the confession is received with gentleness, and acceptance --- even (and even especially) if the response also challenges one to grow beyond this point. My sense though, even here, is that humility comes first and can be strengthened or developed with exercise. The mere (and probably apparent rather than true) doing of this external behavior (if it is not the expression of humility) could as easily result in growing pride or resentment, distrust, and subtler forms of dishonesty one might not be consciously aware of. In any case, humility is the presupposition for the act; the act does not necessarily lead to humility.