December 16, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.
We're weeks into Advent and by now you've likely been assaulted somewhere by the quaint but tired Twelve Days of Christmas. But have you ever heard of the twelve levels of humility?
Centuries before Christendom was torn asunder into eastern and western partitions and over a millennia before Rome's indulgences sparked a protest that led to reform, there was a solitary man named Benedict. You may have heard him referred to as St. Benedict.
He was not a priest, but he did compose a guide for the pursuit of God, synthesizing the wisdom of his day to fashion a new pattern for pressing on to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14). He called it a "rule," which today is known as the Rule of St. Benedict. It's not a formula for spiritual formation to be slavishly followed, but rather an invitation to structure life in a way that leads us along the narrow path.
Since he writes from within the monastic tradition he assumes that the rule will be undertaken in a community of like-minded believers, and under the guidance of a seasoned believer known as an abbot. For reasons of history and theology—some good and bad—the monastic tradition has been largely expunged from Protestant tradition. Yet many of the principles constitutive of the monastic context remain applicable.
The longest chapter of Benedict's rule is dedicated to the issue of humility, since it is the foundation of all godliness. He likens the pursuit of humility to climbing the rungs of a ladder. Paradoxically, we ascend to God's exaltation of the humble while we descend from the intoxicating heights of pride (Jas 4:10).
The first level of humility is having a right fear of God--remembering He sees both our ways and the motives beneath them. It recognizes the consequences of our estrangement from God and thus restrains us from sin and selfishness. This foundational humility also puts a check upon our wanton desires, warning us of their unprofitability and offensiveness.
The second level entails a preference for the will of God over our own, which is a prerequisite for an unswerving deference to the guidance of one's abbot, the third level of humility (again, Benedict writes in a monastic setting).
The capacity to face "hard and distasteful things" with poise and perseverance characterizes the fourth level; while the fifth enjoins a transparency to share our most secret thoughts, including those we find most embarrassing.
The sixth and seventh levels of humility, Benedict avers, manifest in contentment in all circumstances on the basis of the belief that we are unworthy to receive better. Jesus' parable of the servant who expects no reward in the fulfillment of his duty (Lk 17:7-10) and Paul's acknowledgement of his own unworthiness (1 Tim 1:15, 1 Cor 15:9) demonstrate the resistance to demand better, which is so common to contemporary sensibilities.
The eighth level, like the third, puts the sanction of the believing community as that which guides our choices. We put their will and their good foremost as an expression of trust in the Lordship of God.
The use of our tongue comprises the substance of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh levels of humility. Preferring a judicious economy of words, uttered without ostentation, expresses a humble heart. In a world full of words that esteems self-assertion and thrives on chatter, these instructions may be even more counter-cultural than those dealing with deference to others.
The pinnacle of humility obtains when, like the tax collector in Jesus' parable in Lk 18:9-14, our lives earnestly reflect a recognition of our dependence on the grace of God. Humility prefers anonymity out of regard for God's notoriety alone. Yet humble words, affections, and actions ironically become a spectacle in how they point to the glory of the One to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). They are the good works that shine His light and give glory to Him (Mt 5:12).
Mark reminded us last Sunday how, like the Magi, we are all on a journey to see Jesus. The fruit of such a journey is the humility Benedict spoke so richly of. We're perhaps too familiar with the episode to understand how staggering that sight would've been: wise, wealthy, reputable men journeying to an obscure town to find an impoverished family who could only cradle their newborn child with the feeding trough reserved for common animals. They came not to coo, not to dote, but to "bow down and worship" this child who was King. Their prostration emblematizes our journey toward humility. We are learning to bow to Him, more and more, in all that we are.
Reading about abbots, rules, monastics, and levels of humility may rankle some as a pernicious throwback to a quaint yet inflexible spirituality. But who of us reflects even a fraction of the humility Benedict outlines in his rule? Benedict did not distill the wisdom of the gospel into his rule to inspire effort toward mere self-mastery. Rather his rule meant to liberate those who submitted unto it. We're freed from the compulsions and fears that both bloat and stifle our souls. Learning the steps toward humility frees you to live, in Benedict's words, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ?"
Every Thought Captive will be standing down for the remainder of the year, but will hold forth again come January. As you close out the year with thoughts of the arrival of Christ, you might take some time to consider an old but foundational writing by a Church Father of the 4th century, Athanasius, on God in flesh appearing: On the Incarnation. His peace to you in the new year.