21 February 2008

A Question about humility, and a possible contradiction of St Benedict's Rule

Since a couple of my posts have dealt with humility, and especially the idea of humility of being grounded in the truth of who we are, that is the truth of how God sees us, they have raised questions for readers. One of them is especially good because it uses a paragraph from St Benedict's Rule which seems to contradict what I wrote just yesterday. "How is it [I], a Benedictine, can disagree with St Benedict in this matter?" The pertinent passage is par 51: "The seventh step of humility is that he (the monk) should not only pronounce with his tongue that he is inferior to and more common than all, but also believe it in the intimate sensibility of the heart."

Let me begin by saying we are often tempted to misread these texts in the same way we misread dictionaries, that is, as prescriptive rather than descriptive. And yet, dictionaries are really compilations of common usage which are therefore DESCRIPTIVE, not prescriptive. What I mean is that language changes and grows and a dictionary captures a sense, or takes a snapshot of what common meanings words have at that point in time, not what sense these must have for all time! While it is helpful to teach grammar school children (et al) these common meanings in a somewhat prescriptive way (for instance, for the time being you will need to use them in these senses if you are to be understood), the bottom line is we are DESCRIBING the meanings common NOW so these children can communicate with others who share language as it exists. As they mature as persons and linguists, their language will develop and change and include neologisms and new usages as well as common usage. They will expand the meanings of the words, and perhaps transform them entirely in time.

In a sense, the Rule of Benedict's ladder of humility is the same: it is meant to describe the outward signs of various stages of growth in humility a monk might evidence as she goes through her life; it is NOT prescriptive of steps which MUST be taken or behaviors which must be adopted in order to achieve humility. Especially, it is not to be taken as prescriptive of steps and behaviors one apes or practices hoping to make them habitual or "perpetual". As Michael Casey makes clear in his book, A Guide to Living the Truth, Saint Benedict's teaching on Humility: "Humility is not an action or a series of actions, nor a habit formed by the repetition of actions. It is, rather, a receptivity or passivity; a matter of being acted upon by God."

So, at some point in one's growth in humility, one will probably not only come to see that one is NOT better than one's fellows, but that since one cannot see the sins or read the hearts of others, one will also likely come to believe that she is truly WORSE than any other person. It represents a stage in true development of humility and (presuming the attitude is not pathologically rooted) reflects at least a couple of important pieces of growth: first the awareness of one's own sinfulness (brokenness and alienation) and also a sense of one's essential poverty; second, a refusal to judge others; and third, a growing harmony between inner attitudes and outer behaviors. It STILL, in my opinion, bears the taint of the "fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (or recognizes the monk will do so at this stage) because it juxtaposes or judges oneself alongside others (and vice versa), but it is an improvement over earlier stages of growth, and will be followed by what Benedict identifies as five more steps or stages as well.

We are a people addicted to "How to" books, and I think oftentimes we turn old classics in spirituality into such books. The temptation to turn Benedict's "ladder of humility" (or those by other lesser spiritual leaders --- for these were VERY popular at various times) into something we need merely climb rung by rung to a destination where we will then dwell forever is naive. It gets the picture backwards, puts the cart before the horse, so to speak. We should view it more like a spiritual topographic map, a map of a journey we are taking punctuated by certain landmarks or symptoms of stages in the process. The person who has never experienced TRULY seeing herself as "inferior to and more common than all" MAY need to attend to other and earlier stages of the journey of growing receptivity we call humility (although today one who feels this way may equally need psychiatric help as well as good spiritual direction!), but whether this is the case or not, it would be a serious mistake to adopt this as a way of behaving expecting it to lead to true humility. The point is the map is the RECORD of a journey already in progress, NOT the outline of a path we are to follow slavishly or mechanically. If we are on track certain landmarks or signs will stand out from stage to stage of our journey. if we are not, no running from one landmark or sign to the next will get us there. The journey takes place on a different level entirely.

One side note: in pre Vatican II religious formation it was often the case that ladders such as this one WERE taken in a prescriptive sense, and superiors tried very hard to mold or "form" young religious accordingly. Of course uniformity was a prized commodity in those days, and it was a good deal more demanding on formation personnel to patiently watch each novice or junior for signs of authentic growth than it was to impose and measure external conformity. (Fortunately the very best managed to bridge the gap between the two approaches and achieve a balance.) Humility is like the parable of the seed however: the farmer can only provide the basic elements and care necessary and trust that God will provide for growth in spite of external conditions, etc. He can no more force a seed to grow into a particular plant than he can force the sun to rise or the moon to set. The same is true of ladders of humility, etc. They cannot be used in the way described in this paragraph. If they are, the result will likely include damage to the tenderest growth.

I hope my comments do not seem to be simply an end run around what Benedict "plainly says". In fact, I can point to several Benedictine scholars who accept this view of Benedict's "Ladder of humility." I have not read one who says precisely what I do about the "taint" which remains of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but it seems to me their sense is the same: in pointing to growth in spiritual life we must contend with the taint of sin and of other ways of viewing reality which remain and accompany our growth. They are, this side of death, always with us.

Meanwhile, thanks for the question! I do appreciate getting them occasionally!