Oblate Conference: On Humility and Pride

The central focus of the spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is the long ‘Ladder of Humility’, which comprises the entire seventh chapter.  How many of us believe that?  Is it not the case that in our rush to prove the Rule relevant to modern secularized persons, we often overlook the fact that Chapter 7 is the longest of the Rule and the immediate preparation for divine worship?  We prefer to emphasize the more ‘humane’ sounding chapters on the father-like qualities of the abbot and cellarer, the care for the goods of the monastery, the importance of community and hospitality, and so on.  But as we saw last week, all of these truly good attitudes and works are easily spoiled by the vices of vain glory and, most especially, the toughest vice of them all: pride.

Thus, for those aiming to cultivate the spirit of the Rule, humility must be at the center of every project we undertake.  This is why Benedict would have us pray before beginning any work, and counting ourselves worthless workmen at the conclusion.  That said, humility is not something that we can gain by ‘practice’.  In other words, we can’t set out on the ladder of humility and advance by our own efforts.  If we could, we would soon become proud of our achievements—yes, even proud of being humble!  If you’ll pardon a sentimental reference, “It’s hard to be humble…when you’re perfect in every way,” including being ‘humble’.

Rather, St. Benedict would have the newcomer to the life be ‘eager for humiliations’ [opprobria 58: 7].  Again, this is not something that we can easily set out to acquire; rather, the life itself will inevitably present to a monk situations that are humiliating.  If we desire humility, we will learn to accept these situations quietly, patiently, even gratefully.  But we will probably first have to feel the terrible effects of pride.  The sooner this happens, the better, really.  A warning that was already traditional in the time of Cassian alerts us that many monks encounter humiliations only after long periods of relative success and self-satisfying growth in monastic virtue.  As Cassian warns, pride can bring down even the most experienced monk.

The ancient monks rank pride as worse than vainglory.  This is because vainglory, rank and nettlesome as it is, still retains something of the image of God in us.  How can I say such a thing?  As I wrote last week, vainglory, in seeking to receive the praise of others, retains at least some vestige of mutuality.  When we receive scorn instead of praise, or when we fail miserably in some public way, we at least have the possibility of being pierced by compunction in the presence of those who know our failing or those who dislike our supposed contributions to life.  We admit our dependence on others by the very pain we feel when rejected.

With pride, we dispense with any kind of mutuality.  We come to view ourselves as independent or self-sufficient.  This sort of pride can have a friendly appearance externally.  We may find proud persons attractive, representing an ideal that we wish we realized in ourselves.  We might not recognize immediately, if at all, the destructive effects that proud persons have on others.  I sometimes wonder if the depression epidemic we have in our Western world today isn’t the side effect of the cult of self-esteem and independence that is the driving ‘spirituality’ of modernism.  When we don’t need each other, when I exist only as a foil to someone else’s amazing, self-motivated achievements, then the humble joy of community and the assurance of shared life are quietly sapped without us quite knowing what’s wrong.  All the smiling faces on television, the self-assured radio talk show hosts…these stereotypes of pride deflate those who lack charisma, who are thoughtful, and so on.

Depression is not exactly sadness.  This is important to note.  It is instead the avoidance of feelings because feelings are too overwhelming.  Depression is a numbing of our response to a hurt that has become unmanageable.  I still would maintain that some of that hurt comes about when an otherwise thoughtful person comes to the realization that the promises of the modern world are glittering images, lacking substance.  “Phony” would be Holden Caulfield’s term.  The smiling people smile not for me, but for themselves.  The superficiality of so much of our popular culture is depressing indeed.

The difficulty with depression is that it is frequently an attempt to combat this pride in others with my own kind of pride.  Recognizing the lack of mutuality among those who seem to count in the world, I take the apparently logical and justifiable step and reject all mutuality.  Why not withdraw into myself where I can’t be hurt by others…who really seem to be out to hurt me?  The Simon and Garfunkel song, “I Am a Rock,” is an eloquent, if slightly terrifying, portrait of this flip side of pride.

Now, let us return to the cure, that is, humility.  I’ve mentioned that humility is not something that we precisely earn.  It is something that faith offers us when the world presents us with hard experiences.  Accepted in a spirit of trust that God will justify us, that our own foibles and sins to some extent merit some unpleasant consequences, sufferings can soften our hearts.  Sufferings undertaken in a spirit of human solidarity (“everyone must suffer, and it’s my turn”) will make us in turn more compassionate to others who suffer.  “God comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction [2 Cor 1: 4].”  So the key is in how we respond to life, whether we respond by fighting back, returning evil for evil [Matt. 5: 39], or by allowing life to shake us up, even break in upon us.  This salutary in-breaking of sorrow is the highly prized experience of compunction, so cherished by the early monks.  “The gift of tears” is the traditional expression of this acceptance of our burden of responsibility for the sad state of humankind as well as our opportunity to participate in humanity’s rehabilitation.

Blessed John Paul II liked to stress solidarity as a guiding principle for the modern Catholic, and this is telling.  Solidarity and loyalty are qualities that will, from time to time, cause us grief.  Purposely linking ourselves to others is a risk (“I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain,” sings Paul Simon).  But this pain of fidelity, and the corresponding pain of being less than a true friend to those who have yoked their fates to mine are, once more, opportunities to grow in solidarity and humility.  This is the way out of the trap of independence and pride.  Benedictine stability provides many opportunities for this kind of growth.  But once more—I must stress!—we must want this kind of growth and be willing to accept the growing pains that attend it.

Let us return for a moment to RB chapter seven.  Fr. Michael Casey, as is often the case, has provided a wise summary observation about the Ladder of Humility.  St. Benedict has not given us a ‘prescription’ for becoming humble, but a ‘description’ of the steps along which the “Lord will graciously manifest [love and virtue], by the Holy Spirit, in his workman [7: 70].”  The Ladder is given to us as a diagnostic tool.  With it, we can measure our progress in humility or lack thereof.  There are several important corollaries if Fr. Casey is correct.

First of all, many people find the apparent strictures on laughter to be a distressing aspect of the Rule.  If the Ladder were prescriptive, we might imagine that going about gloomily silent would produce humility.  However, as I have argued above, nothing that we can do proactively will generate humility in us.  When brothers insist on being humorless in order to prove their humility, I point out that they should check to see first whether they have attained steps one and two, not to mention step seven (considering everyone else to be better than I am).  We can’t be certain that restraint of laughter is a real sign of humility unless we have signs that the lower steps have been attained.  Furthermore, if humility is a byproduct of our faithful response to suffering and hardship, then restraint of laughter will show itself not as gloominess, but in quiet circumspection, a wise tempering of mood that remembers this: that solidarity requires us to remain aware of others suffering in our midst and elsewhere.  Laughter can be a means of excluding inconvenient brothers who are struggling, making them feel like dead weight.  The wise father will know how to let these struggling brothers into the solidarity of the group without putting on a false visage of cheer.  This is not the same as allowing the morose to undermine communal joy; it is the temperance that knows that real love is often quiet and unassuming rather than loud and attention-seeking.

Finally, we should have frequent recourse to the Cross in contemplating humility.  The Cross is not only a sign of the ‘extreme humility’ that marks the Son of God, who willingly set aside His divine prerogatives to take the form of a slave.  It is also a sign of solidarity with the suffering human race, beloved of God.  God does not triumph over suffering by waving a magic wand, but by embracing it with us.  God’s omnipotence might appear to our weakened sight to give God permission to be proud and overbearing.  I fear that many people (even Christians) think that this is what God is like.  But the full revelation of God is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen with a joy that cannot be taken away.  The risen Christ returns bringing peace and not vengeance to His unfaithful disciples.  These same disciples, chastened by their own failures in discipleship, are now ready to become true ambassadors for the humble God of Israel, the humble Christ.

1 Comment

  • Georgia says:

    I’ve heard it said that the ‘Beatitudes’ are descriptions, and not prescriptions.
    I’ve also read in one of the writings of Pope John Paul 2 that one of our major battles today is between solidarity and efficiency.
    Your teaching made me think of these.