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Humility - A 12 Step Program

by Brant Pitre October 17, 2019 0 Comments


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In closing I’d like to end here with one of the most famous interpretations of the gospel for today from one of my favorite saints. It’s from St. Benedict of Nursia. I don’t know if there are any Benedictines out there watching the videos, but this one goes out for you here. In the rule of St. Benedict, there’s a very famous chapter in St. Benedict’s rule. This document was the foundation of Monasticism in Western Christianity. Saint Benedict is widely regarded as the father of Western Monasticism. In his Rule of Life that he wrote for his Benedictine monks, is this very short powerful book: The Rules of St Benedict. It’s very short, but there’s a lot in it. And one of the most famous chapters in the book is his chapter on humility. And many people are familiar with that chapter, but what they often miss is that Benedict anchors his famous teaching on humility in the gospel for today; in Luke 14. So let’s look at what Saint Benedict has to say. In the Rule of St Benedict, he says this:

Holy Scripture proclaims to us brothers: “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 14:11)...

So the quote we just saw from Jesus’ parable of the banquet that he gave to the guests. Saint Benedict continues:

Therefore, brothers, if we wish to reach the highest peak of humility and soon arrive at the heavenly heights, we must, by our good deeds, set up a ladder like Jacob’s, upon which he saw angels climbing up and down.

So you remember Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28? How do we get this ladder? How do we reach up to Heaven?

Without doubt, we should understand that climbing as showing us that we go up by humbling ourselves and down by praising ourselves... We may think of the sides of the ladder as our body and soul, the rungs as the steps of humility and discipline we must climb...

So pause there. St. Benedict’s famous image of the rungs of Jacob’s ladder to Heaven being rungs of humility is based on his interpretation of Luke 14, Jesus’ words in the parable for today). But what’s fascinating is he goes on to give 12 steps. Well you might be thinking, “Well how many rungs are there in this ladder?” Well there are 12 steps. So I thought this was funny. This is like the first twelve step program. You thought the twelve step program was invented in the 20th Century for alcoholics, people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, but actually St Benedict invented the first twelve step program and it’s for those of us who are addicted to ourselves. Sorry, I can’t help it.  I had to get that in there; I was waiting all day for that. So the twelve step program for those who are addicted to themselves is a program that’s oriented around humility. I’m going to read the steps to you because you might think, “Ok, that’s great Jesus, I want to be humble. I want to humble myself. How exactly do I do it?” Here are the steps that St. Benedict gave, in brief:

Step 1: Obeying all of God’s commandments.  In other words, act like God is God and you’re not.

Step 2: Don’t bother to please yourself. In other words, don’t take the best seat at church. Don’t take the biggest slice of pie. If you’re in a religious house, you know, don’t take the best seat in the choir. Whatever it might be:, seek the lowest position for yourself. In other words, whatever your inclination is to please yourself, go against that, go the opposite. Seek the lower place.
And this is something that’s really important to do with your children. Start early teaching them to not seek to please themselves but to please others. For one thing, it will foster peace in the family. Another thing, it will help them to be happy. This is the road to happiness. This is the ladder to happiness. So do this early. Whether it’s with children or if you’re in a religious house, do this with novices. Don’t bother to please yourself, step 2.
Step 3: Obedience to your superior, in the religious life or to parents in the home.

Step 4: Patient and quiet perseverance of everything inflicted on you by others. In other words, no complaining. If you meet somebody who complains all the time, you can basically rest assured that they’re not humble. Because the reason people complain is they think they don’t deserve it. “Why is this going wrong? I don’t deserve this.” If you really look at yourself and you look at what’s going wrong, if you’ve ever committed a single mortal sin, what you deserve is eternal separation from God forever. So whatever’s going on right now, relax, right? There’s no reason to complain, you know. The idea that “I don’t deserve it” is a kind of pride. So humility says be patient and quietly persevere everything that you have to endure.
Step 5: Humble and thorough confession of your sins and faults.  There is nothing more humbling and humiliating than the Sacrament of Confession.

Step 6: The acceptance of crude and harsh tasks; so what? No grumbling. If you’re a parent, and you have to change another diaper, just do it. Grumbling is also a sign of pride. Not to accept those things that are crude or difficult. If you’re a professor, grading final exams, that would be yours.

Step 7: This one’s important. Don’t only confess that you are inferior to others, that other people are better than you, but really believe it in your heart. Start to see everyone else’s virtues as greater than yours. And don’t just say you think that’s the case, but learn to believe it. So if you cultivate an ability, instead of judging others as less than you, exalting them above you. That’s the cultivation of real humility. That’s step 7. In other words, don’t just seek the lowest place at the banquet, seek the lowest place in your own eyes.

Step 8: Strict observance of a Rule of Life. So Benedict here is talking to his monks who have rule to follow. So it’s a form of obedience). The same thing could be true though within the family, like certain rules for the household. Follow a rule of life as a way of conquering your will for the greater common good of family life or work or whatever it might be, the duties of your state in life.

Step 9: The practice of silence. Only speak when necessary. People who never stop talking are usually not very humble, because they think what they have to say is so important that everyone needs to hear it. Thankfully that’s not a problem for professors.

Step 10: Restraint from laughter and frivolity. So showing restraint in the question of jokes. It’s very similar to “talking too much”. A lot of times jokes and laughter are wonderful, bring lots of joy, but it’s also real easy for it to become a temptation to draw attention to yourself. So people who tell too many jokes are often looking for attention. So showing restraint in those things is very important.

Step 11: Speaking few words, simply and seriously. So being a person of few words is also an act of humility, restraint.

Step 12: Showing humility in your heart and in your appearance and actions. In other words, don’t just think about yourself in humble ways, but actually live it out. Show it both interiorly and exteriorly. In other words, don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk as well, the path of humility.

Anyway, that’s from Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict if you want to look at it. I just thought it was fascinating because what you see here is how the living tradition will take a single saying of Jesus: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will exalt the exalted.” And then uses that to draw out the deep meaning of this very short parable and explain practically speaking, how do we as Christians, how do we as disciples of Jesus, live this out in our state of life (in our everyday life), so that we can cultivate both humility (the virtue of humility) and also the virtue of charity through almsgiving? And if we do both those things (hopefully), we’ll get a good seat at the table in the kingdom of Heaven.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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